Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012)

It's that time of year. The Halloween season is upon us. The horror industry is kicking things into high gear as everyone is a little more willing to venture out and attempt to find a film that's going to scare them out of their wits.

One of the many offerings this Halloween season is Sinister, directed by Scott Derrickson, who is also credited as having written the screenplay, with C. Robert Cargill (Massawyrm to readers of Ain't It Cool News, who's gone on to write for his own site, Hit Fix). The trailer and marketing material suggest a film about haunted home movies, starring Ethan Hawke.

Derrickson's most well known film to date is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which drew it's strength from taking a different perspective on the possession genre and a particularly strong performance from Jennifer Carpenter. Given that and the fact that Cargill is an enthusiastic and unabashed cinema devotee whose work I've been reading for years, I thought it worth giving Sinister a chance. If nothing else, I'd be using my dollar to cast a vote for movies made by people who love them instead of being made by people who only see them as vehicles used to extract dollars from the pockets of unsuspecting consumer audiences.

The good news is that the film gets a lot right. Ethan Hawke gives a typically good performance. He's never been accused of being the Marlon Brando of his generation, but he has always been a convincing actor and is again here. The first act of the film is well crafted, with some imagery that succeeds in being creepy, disturbing and in one or two spots, downright uncomfortable. The dynamic between the members of Elliot Oswalt's (played by Ethan Hawke) family is convincing and sympathetic. Fred Thompson (the 2008 presidential candidate) even shows up giving a convincing performance as a small town sheriff not at all glad to see Elliot Oswalt, the true crime writer who's made a living doing new investigations into cases that have had a lot of press attention and revealing things that were missed by police.

The setup doesn't take long and Derrickson goes directly into creep out mode the second all the pieces are in place. In those moments, when Sinister is focused on creeping the audience out and creating an atmosphere thick with tension, it's a real success. Using an amalgamation of genres, from found footage, haunted house, family psycho drama, there's a sense of unpredictability to the first two acts. It's obvious that Derrickson and Cargill are using things they're familiar with from those other genres, and there is a sense of familiarity with many of the aspects of the film, but the way they're hung together also makes it hard to see when the next turn is going to come. Derrickson really does best when he's combining that atmosphere with moments of psychologically bruising horror. There are a few moments in the film that place the audience in a crushing position, and the discomfort that goes with them is gained through the setup.

The problems with Sinister are in the third act. The film succeeds in both destroying the momentum it's built and then it cuts the legs out from underneath the audience by doing something that basically means either Ethan Hawke's character is incredibly, incredibly stupid or Derrickson and/or Cargill think the audience is incredibly stupid. It's established early on that his character is reckless and willing to go a few steps beyond what the overwhelming majority of people would find acceptable, but that does not necessarily make a person stupid and the film finally rests on accepting that this is a profoundly stupid character. There are probably other ways to "read" the ending, but the majority of audiences are going to walk away with that feeling and many of them are probably going to feel as if they were cheated. That experience being as late in the film as it is, it's also going to color the way they feel about having that happened prior. Even as the rest of the film is generally well constructed and it succeeds at being and doing what it sets out to, there are countless other examples of films which are equally good in their first two acts and that audiences are unable to forgive for problems in their third act and finales.

Sinister isn't a waste of time though. The pieces of the film which are inventive and interesting should be appreciated, in spite of the unfortunate problems in the final act. There are also some great images that would reach the level of iconic if audiences were going to be able to really take hold of and embrace the film to a larger degree. The production design and the cinematography are very well done, creating a villain that is unnerving and visually interesting in the kind of way that has turned previous horror villains into cultural icons. In the end, that's the real problem with Sinister, audiences are going to end up walking away with a sense of wasted possibility as opposed to feeling like they've been treated to a really fun, smartly constructed horror film, which is exactly what it is, until it just isn't anymore. Considering the way the film credits are attributed, it's impossible to say whether this is Cargill's fault or Derrickson's fault, but it's definitely a problem with the writing. It would seem the original story came from Cargill, and Derrickson drafted it into a screenplay, meaning the problems really could have come at either stage. Hopefully, both men will be a part of less disappointing films in the future, because the skeletal framework here is sound and solid, it's just a few unfortunate details that pull the whole thing down from what could have ended up being another perennial Halloween season favorite.

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