SXSW Review: ‘Sinister’ is the Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of

Posted by Brian Salisbury - March 11th 2012 @ 8:43 pm

True crime novelist Ellison (Ethan Hawke) moves into a new home with his wife and two children. After achieving great success with his novel Kentucky Blood ten years prior, Ellison has struggled to recapture both the critical acclaim and financial returns of his nonfiction opus. Desperate for inspiration, and unbeknownst to his family, he purposefully moves into the home wherein an entire family, save one missing daughter, was murdered. While unpacking, he discovers a box of Super 8 films in the attic; the contents of which, once viewed, can never be unseen. That’s all I’m going to say in terms of plot, and I’ll only say that much so that you can make an informed decision about seeing this film, and not be swayed by the promises/portents of what it is not.

Something I’ve slowly come to realize is that the term “found footage” has become as nebulous and ill-defined as was the last exhausted horror buzz phrase, “torture porn.” Found footage has become the catchall for any film in which the story is told through the lens of a character-mounted camera. But the fact is the term ultimately refers to the subgenre’s initial, now long-dead gimmick: the insinuation that what you are seeing is not fiction, but reality. Even though it’s become painfully obvious that none of these films contain an ounce of reality any more, the drum is still being beaten. By utilizing the term “found footage,” we are grasping needlessly to the idea that some third party outside of the events on the screen went back and compiled the footage into what we are seeing in an attempt to “ensure this important story is told.”  I am just as guilty as anyone else of perpetuating what is now largely a misnomer. In most cases, what we refer to as “found footage” would possibly be more aptly defined as cinema scareité.

Summit’s upcoming horror movie Sinister however, is an actual found footage movie. I mean that in the absolute simplest terms; it’s literally film about a guy who finds a cache of home movie footage. The narrative is then constructed around the psychological journey on which the disturbing images send him. While this may seem like a novel, fleeting, divergence from the typical definitions of the subgenre, it actually very much informs the supernatural set pieces of the film. Sinister uses the psychological manipulations of found footage, namely the natural human tendency toward voyeurism and dissolution of the fourth wall to go even a step further. We are still chilled by the images in these films-within-the-film, but since we are viewing the viewer as he views them (I’m already dizzy), the filmmakers no longer need worry about selling the footage as authentic. It’s real to the characters in the film, and that’s all that matters. We’re also allowed to know more than the characters, something precluded by the conventions of what we typically call found footage, so a higher degree of suspense is obtained. I also like that Sinister uses the uncovered film reels to establish and cultivate its own mythology and make a statement about the relationship between audience and boogeyman.

It is no surprise to me that the film’s opening sequence was born of a nightmare visited upon co-writer C. Robert Cargill, because Sinister is the stuff bad dreams are made of. It has a flair for imagery and unnerving conceptualizations of evil that will have you convinced you are being dangled precariously over the licking flames of perdition. With each new Super 8 reel examined, a progressively darker and more upsetting parade of infamy creeps into your eye sockets and takes root in your brain; seared into your consciousness forevermore. Comparisons will be made to Jigsaw, and this is a fallacy. At least with Jigsaw, the victims always had a chance.

But Sinister‘s greatest strength is also the spotlight for what I feel is its biggest flaw. The prevalence of jump scares in the film is formidable and while most are admittedly well-earned, those that aren’t only highlight the lack of substance inherent in this genre ploy. Granted, I’m aware that this is a nitpick of an artistic nature and one rooted in personal taste. Despite how much they may irk me, jump scares sell and will probably net a few more shrieks of elation, and thus extra dollars, from the general multiplex rabble. I also have serious issues with the score both on a sensory level and as it betrays the film thematically. The score is a series of foreboding basement beats intermixed with eerily vague soundbites of screaming, disembodied speech, and even bestial growls. These discordant notes are at their most frenzied while Ellison watches the films from the attic. Problem is, these are Super 8 films with no sound so immediately we know they aren’t the product of those films. But the score becomes so awkwardly overwhelming as to sound like it’s actually present in the room and it becomes unclear whether the character should be hearing it or whether it is in his head. It overpowers its own iconic imagery and that is a real shame. I was not at all astounded to find out after the fact that the composer here was Christopher Young, who also did the music for Drag Me To Hell; in which he also seemed more interested in assaulting eardrums than underscoring the creepy visuals.

My only other real complaint with Sinister is that the third act surprises are not as shocking as they are built up to be. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t cheap, and they are totally informed by the context of the film’s earlier events. And yet if you pay attention to what you’re seeing but at all, they will seem exceptionally obvious. To its credit, Sinister actually gets a lot of traction out of that reveal once the thin curtain is pulled back, and honestly the reveals are secondary to the events that play out in the first two acts. I’m also not a huge fan of how the wife character is handled; casually threatening to take Ellison’s children away as if she’s reminding him that there is dry cleaning to be picked up. I understand her motivations for having doubts about their marriage, but her threat comes so out of the blue as to so sound malicious in a way that makes that character unsympathetic.

Apart from those quibbles, Sinister is a damn good horror film that will play to ravenously appreciative crowds in October. It isn’t just haunting, it’s terror that is gripping to the point of being asphyxiating, yet so much fun you’ll be cheering with every gasp.

Grade: B+

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