Monday, October 22, 2012


Outside of festivals, I really don't wind up seeing a whole lot of horror movies or comedies with big audiences - I tend to go for matinee prices or mid-week shows in Arlington and Somerville - so I kind of miss out a bit on those movies where audience reaction is such a big part of the experience. So I kind of forgot what it was like to see something like Sinister in a packed crowd, with people screaming at every jump moment, offering advice, and sending waves through the row of seats when something makes them sit back hard.

It's pretty great.

In some ways, it's just as good at seeing a good horror movie at a festival or a midnight screening. I love Fantasia and Boston Underground and anticipate a lot of fun at ShudderFest this weekend, but they attract the hard core horror lovers, and those guys can on occasion be too familiar with the genre or even jaded. I include myself in this group; even when I don't have the notepad out to do a review, I'm mentally categorizing it, comparing it with other zombie/vampire/possession movies, maybe thinking about the career path of the filmmaker. I'll never be one to say you can be too knowledgeable or that you should settle for mediocrity, but these movies demand a visceral, emotional reaction, and the audience tends to re-enforce the prevailing reaction. So when the crowd is filled with people who don't see a horror movie every week or don't think about how they work, us right-brained catalogers are going to go along, and have a different kind of fun.

(Kudos to the crowd in this case for being pretty cool, too - there was one guy who was trying to crack jokes, but his neighbors seemed to get him to knock it off. Not the time.)

Of course, a good crowd isn't going to completely stop me from overanalyzing a movie, and one thing I half-touch upon in the eFilmCritic review is that there are a couple of layers of subtext going on here:


As I say in the review, the more obvious thing is the writer who gets too wrapped up in his subject; Ellison, in this case, goes from conventional obsession to actually setting his family up as the next victim (and it's a clever metatextual thing here that doing what we tend to yell at horror movie characters for not doing, getting the hell out of dodge, seems to be a trigger for things going wrong). The Deputy hits on this pretty rationally and it's fairly obvious as a metaphor, too. But I kind of dig what's going on underneath even that just as much, in that Ellison and Bughuul are in a certain way two sides of the same coin: Both take tragedy and make myth out of it, Ellison by writing his true-crime books that reshape perception and challenge reality, Bughuul by actually consuming the souls of his familiars and making them a part of him. The very representation of these crimes has power for him, just like it does for Ellison, and Ellison's decision to press on with his book rather than bring the evidence of these crimes being linked to the cops is something similar. Our hero is, in many ways, feeding on violence and tragedy to make himself stronger, and that's a pretty daring thing to do with this movie's protagonist.


Anyway, I liked this quite a bit, and like that it's also pretty clearly done by the same guy who made Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is also well-done and has a fair amount more smarts underneath its genuine scares than you might expect. Go see it while it's still hanging around.

But avoid any trailers and the like if you can at this late date - they don't necessarily reveal the Surprising Plot Twists, but they do show stuff that happens fairly late in the game, and it's not quite as much fun to watch a movie and think "hey, this must lead to that cool shot from the preview!" as to be genuinely surprised by how things unfold.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, 4K digital)

Sinister feels like an anomaly among horror movies in the last few years, where the rule of thumb has seemed to be that the wider the theatrical release, the less impressive the movie. It's not hard and fast, but let's face it - when a movie as good as this one opens opens in a whole bunch of theaters, it almost feels like someone tricked the studios.

What makes Sinister so good? I suspect that the main thing is that co-writer/director Scott Derrickson chooses not to emphasize the thrill of the kill. He and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have actually come up with a series of diabolical murders, but right from the opening scene they are presented as fait accompli, captured and shown to both the audience and true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) on 8mm film. It drains the adrenaline rush from the experience, leaving much more actual horror.

Of course, it wouldn't be an entertaining movie if it were just a series of terrible things that the characters cannot do anything about. Even though Derrickson and company wait a while to start doling out an explanation of what's going on, the movie is well-stocked with reasons for the audience to jump or hold their breaths, whether they be fake-outs, hints of what is coming up next, or having stuff happen once the mythology that has been established (in what is fairly obvious but well-done exposition dump). It's relatively low-key in some ways - Derrickson isn't looking to set a new benchmark for on-screen gore - but well-done.

The concept Derrickson and Cargill come up with - a true-crime writer moving his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) into the house where the crime he's researching took place only to discover that he has stumbled upon something bigger and stranger - is perhaps not quite so intriguing a set-up as Derrickson's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but has a little more depth than one might expect. The filmmakers are willing to let the audience infer what's going on in the background rather than lay out every single detail, and they trust that we can figure out that Ellison can be somewhat self-destructive when working on a book without talking about it until the point where it makes sense for someone to bring it up. Perhaps even more clever is that there are a couple of interesting levels of subtext: Sure, it's easy to spot the chestnut about writers getting too close to their subjects, but there's an even more intriguing parallel between Ellison and the thing he discovers.

Almost everything in this movie comes back to Ethan Hawke on-screen, and he's up to the challenge. It's an interesting one, too; this is a character who is defined by his hubris throughout, almost never fitting the role of hero (and often rubbing the audience the wrong way) but still being a guy the audience can relate to despite his flaws; he sells Ellison's ego and his concern for his family equally. Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, and Michael Hall D'Addario are good support as his family, pretty much what one expects from the characters but not overdoing it. The movie also does a neat job in countering expectations with local law enforcement, initially offering up Fred Dalton Thompson as the predictably gruff sheriff but eventually giving more screen time and doing more interesting things (and doing them well) with James Ransone as his deputy.

Sinister gets the job done; even if it could be a bit tighter in some spots, it knows how to make the audience jump and occasionally wince. It's exciting to see a reasonably smart, well-done,and even occasionally scary movie actually make it to the multiplexes.

(Formerly at EFC)

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