Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sinister: Father Fails To Know Best

People make bad decisions all the time in scary movies, but they're typically made without all of the information we have as an audience ("don't read from that book, it's evil!"), or they're made under the assumption that that information is bad ("the crazed killer escaped the asylum? Nonsense! Besides, he will never get past us. Get out of here, you old fool!").  It's part of that whole "why didn't they just…" criticism I don't like. But every now and then, you get a movie where even discounting the supernatural or otherwise unrealistically horrible factors in play, people are making just shitty, awful decisions, and you can kind of see why things are going to turn out bad for them. Case in point? Sinister.

Ellison Oswalt is a true-crime writer whose last great success is ten years behind him. Oh, sure, he wrote a couple more books, but neither of them caught fire the way his best-seller did, and it's looking like he's out of gas. What's an author to do? He could teach, he could write or edit textbooks, but nooooooooo, that's not the life this married father of two wants. Why get a steady gig, one that will provide for your family, when you can continue to chase the sort of once-in-a-lifetime success few ever experience once, let alone twice or more? So Ellison and his family periodically pack up and move to the site of some horrible crime so Ellison can research it and write a book about it.

Needless to say, this behavior endears him to no one. He alienates law enforcement by being openly critical of them in his books, his kids are miserable from having to move around a lot. his older child has night terrors from wandering into Dad's office full of grisly crime scene information when he was little, and as much as Ellison talks about justice and telling the victims' story for them, it's just a speech. It didn't used to be, but now it's a line of patter, to reassure himself as much as his wife or the people who resent him moving in to their town to pick at the carcass of a recent tragedy. What he wants is wealth and fame and money. He wants another fifteen minutes. He watches old videotaped interviews of himself, warped and fuzzy from age, and it's hard to tell if he wishes he were still that person, talking so passionately about justice, or if he's contemptuous of himself for being so naive. 

So for his most recent effort, Ellison moves everyone to a small town in Pennsylvania, where a family of five has been horribly murdered, hung from a tree in their back yard. The youngest daughter went missing, and it's the missing-persons case on which Ellison is focused. Not content with just living in the same town, Ellison moves his family into the home where the murders took place, and then doesn't tell them that's where they're living. And yeah, I guess I can understand why, and sure, they got the house for a song, but come on. Even if there were no more to the story than that, that's a pretty creepy, shitty thing to do to your family, especially when one of your kids is already traumatized on some level by stumbling on some crime scene photos when he was 8 or 9.

And because this is a horror movie, there's definitely more to the story than that. Ellison finds a box labeled "Home Movies" in an otherwise totally empty attic, and inside there's an 8mm projector and several reels of film, labeled "Pool Party", "Family BBQ", "Lawn Work", etc. The first one is titled "Family Hanging Out", and it's innocuous footage of a family playing catch in their backyard, just chilling out…

…until it cuts to four bodies swinging from the very tree under which they were playing seconds ago. 

And the next reel, "Family BBQ", ends similarly. In fact, they're all home movies that end in horrible death for a family. and they date back to the mid 1960s. And for just a second, just a moment hanging in time, Ellison considers turning the film over to the police. But it's been ten years since he had a hit. So, instead, he watches another reel. And another, and another, damning himself more and more deeply every time he flips the Start switch on the projector. And that's when it begins. The mysterious figures, the odd noises in the attic, the sense that there is someone…or something…standing behind him, just out of sight. Because there is. Something ancient and terrible. 

It's like Jack Torrance moved his family to the Overlook specifically to write about all the horrible shit that happened there, and then was surprised when bad shit started happening

In a way, it's a Pied Piper/Peter Pan story, and you could argue that none of what happens would happen if Ellison would just grow up, quit chasing fame and fortune and start being a responsible husband and father for once. Which is nice to see in a horror film - it's not a character study, but it's nice to see something besides Average Family Moves Someplace Evil, to at least have an idea of why the protagonist is making the decisions he is. Likewise, the supporting characters seem believable as well - the sheriff doesn't want him in town for absolutely good reasons, and the obligatory Comic Relief Deputy ends up being one of the sharpest tacks in the whole story. In fact, the scope of the movie is small, and that's to its benefit. It all pretty much takes place in one house, and almost all at night. It almost feels like one of those movies where its constraints make it better - were it not for the budget and promotion behind this, I could totally believe it as an indie horror movie shot on the cheap by using a cast or crew member's house, and only shooting at night.

It's uneven as hell, though - the "home movies" are very well done, very uncomfortable, the grain of the film and the artificiality of the color make them queasy and disturbing. They look wrong and evil, and as Ellison spends more and more time looking into the story behind the murders, his world starts to become fragmented and artificial - not overly so, but just enough that it feels like the evil contained in the movies is starting to bleed through. And also? holy shit the sound design. The music is understated and uneasy in a way a lot of American horror movies don't get, the insectile scraping and squeaking of the film projector, the loud WHUMPs  and crashes and creaks coming from upstairs, all make for some excellent set pieces.

Maybe that's the problem - this is a bunch of good set pieces, but it doesn't all necessarily tie together as well as it should. Depending on what's going on at any given point, there are two visions for this movie. Is it an unsettling story about human weakness and frailty in the face of inexplicable evil, or is it a broad-strokes monster movie about some ancient bad guy with a specific M.O. and back story? You know, the kind of thing that lends itself to sequels and franchising? Well, where are we in the run time? 

These conflicting visions extend even to the aesthetic of the movie itself. As the supernatural component of the story becomes more manifest, it relies on makeup that doesn't stand up to close examination, and a lot of the dialogue and acting (though not all, which almost makes it more problematic) is just hokey and overdone enough that it makes it hard to take the movie seriously. Just as tension starts to ratchet up, or a mood is established, somebody says something or something pops up somewhere that just undermines all of the goodwill the movie built up to that point. This conflict ultimately compromises the story - a twist (one which someone observant has probably already guessed by this point, but no matter) is telegraphed before its formal reveal (which is one of the creepiest and most unsettling sequences in the movie) , so when the formal reveal does come, it's robbed of a lot of its power, and instead of saying "holy shit!" it just sort of lands with a "well, no shit." And, worst of all, I think, what could have been an effective, gut-punch of an ending is pretty much ruined by a cheap jump scare most likely designed to say HEY LOOK THERE COULD BE A SEQUEL SO LOOK OUT FOR SINISTER 2: SINISTERER! Even the end credits serve as an opportunity to back-load history for the ostensible Big Bad of the piece. 

One of the writers has apparently said (this from Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt) that the design for said creature changed from something less conventionally monstrous to what was in the movie because they were afraid that their original design would hurt the movies' chances at being franchised. If you read my blog on a regular basis, you'll know just how angry this makes me. If you haven't, these posts will give you an idea of why this makes me want to punch a producer or studio executive right in the heart.

That's the worst part of it, I think. It really sort of felt like a tug-of-war between a good, solid, scary film in the vein of The Ring and cheap franchise pandering - an opportunity for brand establishment instead of a movie first. Somebody wanted to tell a scary story about a man whose weakness costs him everything, and somebody wanted product with an identifiable central character to start a franchise, and the end result is just good enough to be a disappointment. We all lost.

Unavailable on Netflix

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