CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SINISTER (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A dark attic. L.L. SOARES has found a box of old home movies and a projector and is playing the movies against one of the walls. MICHAEL ARRUDA pops up to see what’s going on)
MA: Hey, what are you watching up here?
LS: Old home movies of the Arruda family. Here’s your first visit to Disneyworld. You sure were an ugly kid.
MA: You must have the wrong Arruda family. I never went to Disneyworld as a kid.
LS: You poor deprived soul.
MA: Not at all. We went to lots of fun places when I was a kid.
(CUT to a young MA at the Municipal Dump.)
YOUNG MA: Can I throw the next garbage bag into the chute? Please? This is so much fun! Thanks for taking me to the dump!
(CUT back to MA & LS in attic.)
LS (looking nostalgic): Ah, my old stomping grounds—. Did I ever tell you about my first pet? A junkyard rat by the name of Herbie…
MA: Not now. Hey, instead of watching these old home movies, why don’t you start this week’s review?
LS: Sure, anything’s better than watching this boring Disneyland footage. Oh god, now it’s showing pirates on water skis. This is mind numbing.
This week’s movie is called SINISTER, brought to us by some of the same producers who gave us 2010’s INSIDIOUS. This time around, the director is Scott Derickson who gave us THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
MA: Oooh, two not-so-great flicks, although EMILY ROSE was okay in a mildly entertaining sort of way.
LS: Well, compared to those two, SINISTER is a big step up.
In SINISTER, Ethan Hawke (who has been in everything from DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989, to GATTACA, 1997, to 2009’s DAYBREAKERS) plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who had a bestselling book 10 years earlier called “Kentucky Blood,” but who hasn’t been able to recapture the success of that book since. He needs to find just the right story to put him on top again, and he thinks he finds it in a small town where a family was killed in their back yard. He rents the house of the murdered family and moves his wife and kids there, intent on researching the crime and putting out another hot book. But he finds a lot more than he expected.
After they move in, he finds a mysterious box of home movies on Super 8 reels and an old projector in the attic. It all looks harmless enough, until he brings the box down to his office and starts watching the films. They have innocuous sounding names like “Pool Party” and “BBQ” with corresponding dates. He puts one in the projector and sees a family playing together, until suddenly the scene changes and the family members are standing in the backyard with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. Suddenly, a tree branch breaks, causing them all to be lifted off the ground by the nooses, where they struggle until they hang limp and dead.
Ellison is shocked by this. This is a film of the actual murder of the family that lived in this house before him. Which leads him to view the other reels of film. Each one is kind of a mini-snuff film, as he sees more murders flash before his eyes. Clearly these are all the work of one killer, and suddenly the names on the film cans take on a nightmarish quality. The “pool party” is a film of a family being drowned. The “BBQ” is a film of a family being burned alive. The more Ellison delves into these films, the more they start to really affect him. He starts drinking more, and becomes moody and anxious. And he’s only been working on this project for a week!
His family is feeling the strain of it all as well. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) has dealt with his mood swings before when he works on a book, and she isn’t a big fan of the process, since it has clearly has endangered their marriage in the past. Their 12-year-old son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) has severe night terrors, and as the family’s stay in the house continues, his nightmares get worse and worse. There’s also their younger child, Ashley (Clare Foley), who seems more thoughtful and mature than her brother, but she acts out in other ways, including painting creepy pictures all over the walls of her room.
Meanwhile, the local law officers have a mixed reaction to Ellison coming to their town. With his notorious reputation for delving into what police have done wrong in their investigations, the town sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, who you might remember as just plain Fred Thompson from TV shows like LAW & ORDER and more recently THE GOOD WIFE, as well as a brief political career) isn’t very welcoming. Meanwhile, the Deputy (James Ransone) becomes Ellison’s accomplice in tracking down information, since the man is clearly star-struck with Ellison’s celebrity status as a bestselling author.
And just what are the strange symbols seen at some of the murder scenes? And what is that strange clown-faced figure we see strange glimpses of?
SINISTER actually does a really good job of creating atmosphere.
MA: Yes, it does.
LS: The movies that Ellison watches are actually pretty disturbing (SINISTER actually begins with footage from one of these movies, without explanation, before we get into the actual storyline, and it’s very effective). Since these are technically snuff films, we feel as repulsed at them as Ellison clearly is. And yet, he can’t stop watching them, can’t stop trying to decipher the clues and determine just what is going on here.
MA: Disturbing is the word that I think best describes the entire movie. It succeeds in making its audience feel uncomfortable. However, I wish it had spent a little more time being in-your-face scary.
LS: I thought the script and the direction were above-average here.
MA: I liked the script slightly better than the direction. Again, SINISTER was written and directed by Scott Derrickson, and in some ways the pacing of this movie reminded me of his earlier effort, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. I found the pacing very deliberate, not so much slow, as patient. The film moves along like a drama rather than a horror flick.
This pacing worked better during the first half of the movie when things were creepy, but later, when I expected the scares to really intensify and things to really heat up, they don’t, as the pacing remains just as deliberate as it was early on.
I would agree that the story is above average—for the most part, anyway—I enjoyed the main story in this one, of Oswalt’s research, of the discovery of the grisly home movies, and the effects it has on Oswalt and his family. But I thought it became predictable towards the end. I saw the ending coming a mile away, and so I wasn’t surprised in the least.
LS: The ending isn’t mind-blowingly original, but I thought it worked.
And the cast is quite good, especially Hawke in the lead, and Clare Foley as his daughter Ashley.
MA: I really enjoyed Ethan Hawke, but the rest of the cast did very little for me, although I agree with you that Clare Foley is also good as his daughter Ashley.
I really bought into Hawke’s performance as the tormented writer Ellison Oswalt. He really seems creeped out and bothered by the home movies, and he grows more and more uncomfortable as he delves deeper into his research of the crimes.
I also felt bad for the guy. He’s a writer in desperate need of a new hit—it’s been 10 years since his bestseller—and he’s counting on a new hit to support his family, and I kept thinking, “Get another source of income, man! You’re nuts relying only on your book!”
(ELLISON OSWALT pops up into the attic.)
OSWALT: What do you want me to do? Teach? Write boring science textbooks?
MA: Hey, you gotta pay the bills.
OSWALT: But I wrote a bestseller once! I can do it again! I know I can!
LS: Quit your whining and get back to writing, already!
OSWALT: Right. (Exits)
MA: You just said that to get rid of him.
LS: Hey, we’ve got a movie to review here! We can’t waste time listening to some guy whine about not being able to write another bestseller!
MA: I feel bad for him.
LS: I don’t. Where’s my bestseller? At least he had one!
MA: That being said, I didn’t find Oswalt to be the most likeable main character. He’s kind of a jerk to his wife, as he doesn’t tell her the truth about the new house they’ve moved into.
LS: I don’t think all characters – even lead ones – need to be likable. Not all people are likable. Oswalt is damaged goods, in part because of what he’s chosen to do for a living, and it’s understandable that things would take a toll on him. I think this makes him more interesting. And he lies to his wife because, if he doesn’t, he’ll have to put up with her whining.
MA: Yeah, I guess so. Juliet Rylance’s performance as Tracy Oswalt is fine, but I did find her character to be a little annoying. She keeps telling her husband that she supports him and his decision to write his book, but she whines and complains about it every second she gets. Some support!
You mentioned Fred Dalton Thompson. I used to enjoy him on LAW AND ORDER. I thought his role here as the Sheriff was miniscule. Why bother?
(THOMPSON pops up into attic.)
THOMPSON: I needed the money, that’s why. It’s been awhile since I was a senator from Tennessee, and I’m a character actor, not a big star like Ethan Hawke.
MA: Okay, that makes sense. Didn’t you run for president once?
THOMPSON: Yes, in 2008.
LS: How the mighty have fallen.
THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. Hey, if you guys ever need me to play a police officer or a judge in one of your jokes, I have lots of experience.
LS: We’ll think about it and get back to you. We’re kind of reviewing a movie right now.
THOMPSON: Here’s my card. (Hands them a card and exits).
MA: Well that was kind of sad. Back to SINISTER.
And James Ransone as the Deputy ran hot and cold. While he’s likable at times, there were other times when he seemed just plain odd, and I was actually wondering if perhaps there would be something more to this character, some strange quirk in his background, but the script doesn’t go in that direction. The Deputy remains just an oddball supporting character with little to do but look up facts for Ellison.
LS: I couldn’t tell if the Deputy was supposed to be just a comic relief character, or if he would have more importance as the movie went on. I’m actually disappointed they didn’t do more with him.
MA: Same here.
LS: By the time we get into ancient pagan deities that ate children, things have grown quite uncomfortable. The soundtrack here, by Christopher Young, is also quite effective. I found that his use of music, as well as various strange noises, increased the intensity and the tension of what was happening onscreen. Sometimes, it’s just a series of strange sounds, reminding me of the early industrial music of bands like Throbbing Gristle, which works very well at keeping us on the edges of our seats.
MA: Yeah, you’re right about the soundtrack. Some of those background sounds were really weird and they really did add to the mood.
LS: SINISTER does exactly what a good horror movie is supposed to do. It keeps you feeling uncomfortable throughout, and the ending isn’t a cheat. Could this movie have been even more disturbing? Sure it could have. But it does a fine job of walking the tightrope between being truly extreme and maintaining just enough weirdness and scares to keep a mainstream audience off balance.
I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to, and I think it’s one of the better horror films we’ve seen this year. I give it three and a half knives out of five. If it had been a little more intense, I would have given it a better rating. But as is, that’s not too shabby.
What about you, Michael?
MA: While I agree with you that the movie does succeed in making its audience feel uncomfortable, one thing it doesn’t do is flat out scare its audience, and for me, that was a letdown.
SINISTER works more along the lines of a disturbing thriller than a scream-out-loud shocker, and it was nowhere near as scary as I hoped it would be. I thought INSIDIOUS was scarier.
I liked the demon Bughuul a lot, but he wasn’t in this movie enough in my book. He’s really creepy and I wanted to see him do more in this movie, but unfortunately he’s relegated to being a background image, seen in the old Super 8 movies and on occasion lurking about Ellison’s home. Despite his importance to the plot, he doesn’t exactly make a huge splash in this one.
LS: I agree with you on that count. Bughuul is a fascinating figure, and I wanted to know more about him, but the movie doesn’t give us much aside from some mythology provided by Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio), an expert on ancient religions and cults. But I wanted to see Bughuul fleshed out more. I wanted to understand his motivations better.
MA: My son pointed out, and I agreed, that Bughuul resembled Michael Jackson at times, which creeped us out even more, considering that Bughuul consumes children’s souls.
(Suddenly, MICHAEL JACKSON pops into attic.)
MICHAEL JACKSON: I’m a lover, not a child-soul-eater! (sings) WooooooooHoooooo
LS: I’m glad he didn’t stick around. I would have had to kill him.
MA: But, he’s already dead.
MICHAEL JACKSON’s Voice: But my legacy lives on!
LS: Not in Cinema Knife Fight Land, it doesn’t! Get the hell out of here!
MA: I think he’s already gone.
LS: Good! One spooky Michael is enough for me.
MA (laughs): Anyway, I also really liked the Super 8 footage. It was creepy and disturbing, but on its own, it’s not enough to carry this movie. I wanted something more, and SINISTER didn’t really have that something.
For two thirds of this movie, I was really into it, but the final third didn’t go for the throat, and this was a letdown. The movie also wasn’t helped by its preview which gave away a lot of the plot. Very little of what I saw in SINISTER came as a surprise.
To me, the best part of SINISTER—besides the Super 8 mm footage— is the story of how this all effects Oswalt, how he becomes consumed and ultimately frightened of the story he’s investigating. This was good, but I wanted more. The film barely touches upon how it affects his kids. We see it in a few scenes, where his daughter paints images and his son has “night terrors,” but these things are barely touched upon. For example, what is his son really afraid of? His father’s work, the fact that his dad writes about true horrific crimes? The ghosts in the house? Bughuul? I wanted to know what was scaring this kid.
And the film could have benefitted by stronger supporting characters. Ethan Hawke, while good, really isn’t able to carry this movie on his own. I wanted more screen time for the Sheriff, who seemed like the type of guy who’d want to keep a close eye on Oswalt, and the Deputy, who ultimately comes off like a small town cop cliché.
I also wanted to know more about Bughuul. For example, in the movie, he waits for a certain event to occur before he takes action, which is why the crimes are spread out over decades. Why does he wait? I have some pretty good guesses of my own, but the film doesn’t cover this.
Ultimately, SINISTER is an okay horror movie that tells a disturbing tale, but it seems to be missing some much need jolts as it marches on towards its predictable conclusion. I give it two and a half knives.
(The face of an evil clown appears on the movie screen, as the hum of the projector continues to fill the attic. Suddenly, the clown moves forward, filling the screen with its face. MA and LS scream as the lights go out.)
(Everything goes dark)
MA’s Voice: Predictable. Very predictable.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives SINISTER ~ two and a half knives!
LL Soares gives SINISTER ~three and a half knives.