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Where has all the horror gone? As an astute cinema-going friend noted recently, it seems like ages since a clear horror staple emerged as a regular or memorable occasion. With the Saw franchise exhausted and the back-catalogue of icons extensively rehashed (and all failing to spark redux franchises of their own), what remains? Paranormal Activity 4? Scary Movie 5? Horror show indeed.
With the latest efforts of old-school maestros Carpenter, Craven, Argento and Romero failing to scare up the screen (both literally and at the box office), it’s fallen to the Indie circuit to revitalize the great American horror movie. Efforts like Mama, Insidious, and The Last Exorcism have all strived to turn meager returns into franchise powerhouses, with varying degrees of success. Sinister is the latest of the bunch to reach our shores, but does little to distinguish itself from the pack, serving up a hearty amount of atmosphere with a trite premise, unconvincing acting, and a complete lack of narrative drive.
Ethan Hawke (remember him?) plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime novelist frustrated by his inability to equal the success of his stellar debut ten years before. To this end, he up and moves his wife and two young children to a quaint Pennsylvanian town in pursuit of a new story: the unexplained murder of a family and the disappearance of their youngest daughter. As an extra incentive for his dwindling creative juices, he even moves them into the exact same house where the murders took place – an action so stupid that it could only occur (and of course, pay off) in a horror movie. Discovering a box of sinister snuff-films in the attic that lead him to a tangled web of serial family killings, it’s not long before the goings-on turn ghostly, and Ellison’s hubris puts his family in very grave danger…
The worst thing that Hideo Nakata’s Ring did to the horror genre was crystallize the idea of technology as being conduits for paranormal activity – a ghost in the machine that could, and would, tear up your bandwidth. Centering a film on a killer videotape was a good trick, and like any good trick, it was worth repeating (which he did, in 1999s Ring 2). Sinister owes a lot to Nakata’s moody, unbearably dread-filled shocker, and riffs on the idea of images – specifically, films – being gateways for malevolent beings intent on soul-snatching and lawnmower homicide. It’s an apt metaphor for the nature of nightmares and the power of storytelling, but Sinister too often settles for tired clichés and unfocused scares, despite striving for something more cerebral.
It’s hard to care much for Ellison and his family, who round out the roles of ‘long-suffering wife’, ‘moody pre-teen’, and ‘creepy psychic conduit’ without enthusiasm. It’s also hard to care about Ellison’s actions, which seem needlessly self-serving and stupid. Writing is an internal process, and director Scott Derrickson faces an uphill struggling making it cinematically engaging – especially since the film mostly consists of Ellison sitting, watching, and thinking. With almost all of the narrative drive being communicated through the (admirably) distressing 8mm horror shows Ellison uncovers in his attic, too often the film amounts to the audience watching a film of an audience watching a film… which is as interesting as it sounds.
Where lesser films have failed for similar reasons, they’ve also been saved by the power of their central reason for existing: their ghost. Monster movies are only as strong as their Big Bad, and for all the film’s forgivable exposition, languid pacing, and disinteresting repetition, it comes completely undone with an illogical and frustratingly inert central villain. (Once the visual and literal similarities between ‘Mr. Boogie’ and – spoiler – Michael Jackson become apparent, a level of hilarity descends that’s hard to ever shake.) He’s simply not frightening, being cobbled together by tangential narrative threads and ideas because… well… what’s a ghost story without a ghost?
Combined with an obvious ‘mystery’, portentously gloomy tone, and a lack of meaningful engagement, Sinister boils down some nice (and disturbing) ideas into something too bland and homogenous to really work. Rooting for the demise of your central characters is never preferable in films like this, but in the case of Sinister, the inevitable end can’t come quick enough.