It has become like a bad joke to get hooked into horror films rolled out by the studios no matter what time of year they come out, but the ones looking like nothing more than cash cows usually show up around this time of year. They never live up to much and if anything inspire more laughs and mocks at the bad acting than they do provide authentic fear or at least a few jump scares. I like scary movies though, and I love the atmosphere they can provide when done right. Thus, I get suckered into them more often than I probably should. In 2005, after becoming pretty well acquainted with the tricks of the trade it was a refreshing piece of contemporary horror mixed with the tired genre of the exorcism films that made me trust in modern horror movies. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose watching the scary stuff mixed with the courtroom drama inspired a new sense of investment in the material and I was surprised to find a first time director behind such well developed characters and a story that explored a very effective way of getting across a very scary situation. Needless to say, when I heard that same director, Scott Derrickson, was returning to the horror genre after a disappointing follow up in The Day the Earth Stood Still remake I was hoping for something that would again rejuvenate the failing genre. Though I will say 2012 has been pretty steady when it comes to its scary movie offerings (Woman In Black, Cabin in the Woods) I was looking forward to Sinister the most and it certainly didn't disappoint in being one of the best modern horror movies of the past few years.

Tracy and Ellison Oswalt (Juliet Rylance and Ethan Hawke) find their son having extreme night terrors soon after moving into their new house.
Like Emily Rose, Sinister lures you in by giving you a real reason to care about the people who are dealing with the demons. It also doesn't hurt that Derrickson was able to round up a credible and all-around good actor like Ethan Hawke to be at the center of his film and provide an authentic anchor for all the weird stuff that would be taking place around him. Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime novelist who has become accustomed to mistreatment from the people he encounters when moving into a new town due to his reasons for being there. This newest venture seems no different when we first meet Ellison and his family at the beginning of the film. Unbeknownst to his wife and two kids though, this time Ellison has moved himself and his family into the actual house where a family was murdered, the same case he will be investigating for his latest book. It is clear the man needs a break as his actions hint at being motivated more out of desperation than any kind of method. When he discovers a box of old family movies in the attic and decides to take a look things naturally begin to take a turn for the worse, but they never reach a point where the scares elicit more laughs than they do jumps, sometimes even real chills. Derrickson, who also wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill, also provides a story around this creepy set of circumstances that doesn't necessarily feel hokey despite the trailer making it look like nothing more than a Amityville knock-off. When it comes to a scary movie though the story can only serve so much as what really matters is how well it is done. Sure there is a demon, a nice use of the inherent creepiness of super 8 films, and the great element of how everything means something  and contributes to the overall story arc but Derrickson plays up every moment he can with what still scares people and it works in the most effective of ways. Those tricks of the trade have become tired, but Derrickson has a knack for playing with our fear in just the right way.

A nice touch with such a horror film is in fact the characterization Hawke provides in his lead role. He makes the guy such a relatable person, someone who we know and can understand his reasons for feeling the need he does and to the point that he would put his family in such a conflicting position. It is almost as if Hawke decided to play the guy as if this role were taking place in a drama rather than a horror film. He recognizes that the film is about fear and we know going in that this is supposed to be a scary movie, but Ellison is not looking at the emotion in this sense of the word. Ellison, who would like to go back ten years to his glory days of being a famous crime novelist rather than the struggling author who hasn't turned out a hit since. The guy has become afraid of defeat, of accepting a destiny he didn't see for himself. he is afraid of becoming someone less than he expected of himself. In the scheme of things that truly is terrifying and a fear that has to be dealt with on a daily basis. Add to that character what Derrickson and Cargill have here and you have yourself not only a delicious character study but also a delightful horror movie that plays on the classic pillars of old folklore, creepy kids and things that go bump in the night and we truly do get an authentic scary movie that carves out a place for itself in the genre. There are a lot of ideas bouncing around here and Sinister brings out the best qualities that horror films should have in that it not only depicts that emotion of fear and delivers scares in the way audiences would expect from such a film but also because it is such a powerful emotion it gives us, as an audience, something we can really feel. Something that stays with us and that, if anything else, is the mark of a great scary movie.

The night terrors continue as Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) is lookin' a little possesses in Sinister.
And like Emily Rose, Sinister grabs us not only with our investment in the lead character but also with its kind of a double entendre of not just being a horror film, but a mystery movie at the same time. Rather than giving everything over to the sole purpose of guaranteeing certain scares spaced far enough apart so that the audience feels rewarded for its ticket purchase the makers have also given the story more layers to create substance to their scares. What I truly enjoyed, yes I think that is probably a fine word to describe it, is the fact that Sinister didn't find it necessary to simply follow the standard outline of a horror film by building to point, scaring us and then calming down taking us to a secure place. No, with Sinister we feel a consistent tension throughout that only becomes more overbearing in certain moments when the story allows it to make perfect sense, for it to feel logical. It does not survive on simple jump scares littered throughout and it doesn't drag inbetween those moments with stale dialogue between teenagers about weed, sex, and music that no one actually listens to. No, this is a scary movie that doesn't really have time for those now tired and manipulative gags that have us buying into things just to cheated with a scare and no pay off. The pay off is fine enough here even if I wanted the mythology of the antagonist to go deeper and feel more revelatory than it turns out to be. This being the only qualm I really had with the movie I can't condemn it for everything else that it does so right. It is rare we get a slick Hollywood horror that delivers both real heart that makes the real fear all the more palpable, but Sinister comes pretty damn close and I can't wait to see what Derrickson freaks us out with next as he will hopefully dig deeper into the human psyche and what really scares us.


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