Saturday, March 9, 2013

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Rating: R
Run time: 110 minutes
Synopsis from IMDB: A true-crime writer finds a cache of 8mm "snuff" films that suggest the murder he is currently researching is the work of a serial killer whose career dates back to the 1960s.

I was reluctant going in to Sinister due to a common horror movie problem. It's one I'm sure that you've noticed as well. To draw in more horror fans, the trailers are often filled with glimpses of the 'horrifying' elements. Sinister is a film that suffers from that problem. The trailer showed the demon at least six times in two and a half minutes. It's this oversaturation of the intended scares that, in my opinion, detract from the actual horror of the story. There is a way to draw your audience in without revealing so much before they even get into the film.

With that said, Sinister is not your typical horror movie despite it's usage of the usual horror patterns. Think of this one a bit more like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Like that movie, this one is part horror and part something else. Emily Rose was part courtroom drama where Sinister is part psychological thriller (although a mild version of it). The downfall for this movie is where the line between reality and supernatural is drawn. The effect of blending the two falls flat where in Emily Rose, you could choose to believe she was possessed. All comparisons aside, the two films don't share any of the same attributes aside from genre and a writer/director.

I'm usually not a fan of movies that make use of 'found' footage. I won't go into how bad Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism were. Usually, I find that filmmakers use this medium as an excuse for being lazy. They can 'show' things happening in blurry or grainy tones that accent their jump scares without having to do much of anything on their own. You can see prime examples of this in the the two examples above.

However, in the case of this film, the 'found' footage works to their advantage. Each of these instances work because that footage is what drives the main character forward. He's a true crime novelist desperate for a hit after years of mediocre sales. What he uncovers in this footage leads him to believe that he's just found the biggest story of his career. This might be the one that puts him back on top of the bestsellers list. Of course, he has to pursue it no matter how gruesome the footage is. He needs his new novel to be a success.

There were parts of this movie that were genuinely unsettling for me. Most of those actually came from the 'found' footage. They're the type of scenes that you're disturbed by, but you can't quite look away. I wasn't frightened by them. It was just disturbing to see the murders play out in such a way. The addition of the Super 8 film gives it a grainy, often unfocused, first person perspective of every murder. Watching those scenes, you really can't blame the main character from drinking a bit more of his scotch.

There are a few questionable moments that you'll have. Why doesn't he report the films he's found to the police? For this one, you have to remember that he's desperate for a hit. His marriage isn't in the best shape. If he can't pull off a hit, then most likely he's going to lose his wife and children. This is a desperate man who has been drinking heavily from the point he finds those films. It's in this character's performance that you're really drawn in. He does do a lot of stupid things, but those can be easily explained once you factor in the presence of that desperation and alcohol.

He isn't alone in his research of the murders. The research is aided by a local police deputy who happens to be a fan of his novels. While some may have just resorted to googling the murders, our main character goes the logical route and gets help from an actual reliable source. You know, those actually exist in real life. Police databases aren't full of wikipedia entries. This help leads him to a university professor who's consulted for the police department before. The cameo of Vincent D'Onofrio as the occult specializing professor was quite nice. It was even more interesting that it was uncredited.

Sinister isn't without flaws. The jump scares are fairly obvious. The trailer reveals far too much. Once you see the movie, you'll realize what I mean by that. There are, of course, corny and silly moments as every horror suffers from. The strength lies in Ethan Hawke's performance and the Super 8 footage. The weakness for me was actually in the supernatural bits. The demon could have used a bit less exposure. He was far creepier when we didn't see him up close.

On a side note, the use of an actual Super 8 camera and film stock was very refreshing. I'm a big geek for all types of film from 70mm all the way down to 35mm and everything in between. It's not difficult to fake the look of Super 8 film with the technology that's out nowdays. Yet, the real thing still holds a nostalgic, creepy feel in the end. This isn't something you may know unless you've experienced that feel of having it right beneath your fingertips.

It's better not to get me started on talking about that subject though! Back to Sinister, don't go into it expecting to be scared out of your mind. You're not going to find that here. Think of it instead as an unsettling psychological thriller with supernatural elements. When it gets a bit corny, take it with a grain of salt. This movie could be far worse. In fact, I've seen far worse recently. If you liked Exorcism of Emily Rose and Insidious, then you'll enjoy this one.

Rating: 2.5/5

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