Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Darkness and Doubt

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Sinister (2012, directed by Scott Derrickson) is a stock, mid-list horror film. It's a kind of film that I like to describe as a "One from column A" film, in which the elements that make up the plot are chosen from two stock lists of horror tropes. In this case, the elements derive from The Shining and The Ring (natch) and The Woman in Black and even certain episodes of Doctor Who. This isn't a film that reinvents the wheel. For all that, it's pretty good.

Sinister finds true crime writer Ellison Oswalt and his family moving into a house where a the previous owners were murdered, hung from a tree in the back yard. Ellison wants to gain insight into the family as he writes his next book about the crime, but his family are none too happy to be there. Ellison withholds from them the fact that their new home is a crime scene. Ellison is desperate for a hit. His first book was a best seller, but his subsequent books have tanked and, worse, pissed off law enforcement. He's greeted the day he moves in by the local sheriff, who politely asks Ellison to consider moving back to where he came from. Ellison declines. Later that day, as he's finding places in the house to store things, he discovers a box of home movies and a projector in the attic. Consulting his research materials, including extensive photos of his own house, he determines that the movies were not there when the police took inventory. Who left them? That question becomes paramount when he discovers that the movies show not just the murder he's writing about, but several other similar murders of entire families. Has he stumbled onto a serial murderer? And is that murderer toying with him? And what happened to the children abducted from each family? Are they alive? As he delves deeper, he sees a recurring figure in the films, one that is called "Mr. Boogie" on the childish drawings on the inside of the box of films. When he shows a professor of criminology who specializes in occult murders a symbol found at each crime scene, it becomes clear that "Mr. Boogie" is actually a pagan god called Bagul, the devourer of children. Worse, Ellison's own family now seems to be under threat, as strange things begin to happen around his house and to the behavior of his children. Bagul, Ellison learns to his sorrow, lurks in images, just like the films that he's been watching...

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

This is a film that's in love with darkness. I don't mean the thematic darkness of a horror movie, though that's there too. I'm talking about physical darkness. This is a film where even when there are lights, there are huge areas of the screen that are draped in darkness. This is a nocturnal film, when all of the significant action seems to happen at two in the morning. No one in this film has overhead lights, or if they do, they never turn them on. This is a film that has a limited location, so this isn't a case of the filmmakers using darkness to cover the cheapness of their production. It's a stylistic choice. Eventually, it pays dividend once the framing of its characters in the film frame starts to leave big areas of empty space. These aren't usually populated, but they encourage the viewer to imagine awful things there. Especially once the film starts to show us awful things in their own right. There's a shot of a ghost girl shushing Ellison's daughter that's deliciously creepy.

Sinister Hanging Scene

The home movies this film shows us are terrific little horror vignettes. There's something inherently melancholy in old home movies under the best of circumstances. They always seem vaguely ghostly, particularly if they're old Super 8s rather than old videotape. This film pushes that aura of melancholy into the positively horrific, like the echoes of long suppressed nightmares. The movie puts the first one right at the start of the film, before the credits. The image of the hanging family makes good on the film's title before we have any characters to follow. In some ways, this is the living end of Sam Arkoff's dictum about how a movie needs a good first reel and a good last reel and the rest doesn't matter, because it's hard to shake that initial image. It's a testament to the power of its ending that the opening isn't necessarily what follows you away from the movie. The rest? I won't say it's make-work, but it's not at the same level. I don't know how it could be, though I do like the fact that Bugul has an antic gift for punning titles. A film depicting a family burning alive is called "Family Barbecue," while the one showing another being hanged is called, "Hanging Out." This injects a vein of black, black humor that the movie desperately needs.

This is another contemporary ghost/horror movie in which a dysfunctional family takes center stage. Most of these movies reconstruct their families by the end of the movie, using the horror shenanigans as a kind of family counseling (and, more often than not, reasserting the primacy of patriarchal nuclear families). That's the direction this film starts to take, too, with its writer father who drinks too much and who is a slave to his work and to his ambition. Ellison's character arc is one of finding out what's really important in his life: the movie tells us that that's as a conventional family man rather than as a writer or as a success in life. Ethan Hawke is beginning to make a career in b-list horror, between this film, Daybreakers, and The Purge. He's got a face for it, and if he wants to become a horror actor, more power to him, because he's a better actor than the genre usually gets. He's good here, and self-effacing, because Ellison Oswalt is not a sympathetic character. He lies to his wife, he places his career ahead of the well-being of his kids, he neglects his kids, and he's a glory hound. Ellison's adversarial relationship with the police and his profession is an ingenious way to explain away some of the dumb horror movie things he does, which become comprehensible and less dumb if they're part of his job and fueled by his ambition. The movie makes a token attempt at reconstructing Ellison as a good family man, but it rings hollow (intentionally, as it so happens).

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

We don't really get a feel for any of Ellison's family members. His wife, Tracy, is mostly at odds with him. We don't really see her as anything other than a nag, which is totally unfair to her because she is totally justified in her displeasure. Their son is on the verge of becoming a teenager. We know he walks in his sleep and has a stock of backtalk for his parents. The daughter, Ashley, is an artist and appears to want to be a daddy's girl, though Ellison shuts her out when she makes the attempt. To an extent, the grievances of his family--particularly Ashley's--are integral to the film's ending.

Ah, the ending. I'll not spoil it. If you haven't seen the movie, it's worth discovering on your own. Suffice it to say that it's an ending that rescues the film from some of the cliches that make up its plot. It has an instinct for the jugular that's refreshing in these kinds of films and puts this more in the tradition of E. C. Comics than J-horror knock-off. Best of all, it's totally organic to the film that precedes it. It doesn't cheat. It even calls back to specific bits of business that might have been throwaways in another film. Best of all, it demolishes the idea of a reconstituted family. It takes a bloody ax to that idea, and more power to it. The result is a film that is not reassuring, that does not tell the audience that good will out and that all is right with the world and that everything will be all right if we cleave unto our families as a ward against the dark. Because all is not right with the world. Not by half.

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