Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2012

Sinister

America's scariest home videos

'Sinister' is an impressive exercise in a certain brand of old-fashioned horror

Sinister
Summit Entertainment
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley, Fred Dalton Thompson, Nicholas King and Vincent D'Onofrio
Rated R / 1 hour, 50 minutes
Opened October 12, 2012
(out of four)

At the risk of sounding too dismissive of contemporary horror filmmaking, I can't shake the feeling that Sinister works as well as it does because it feels like a transplant from the 1970s or early '80s.

What's familiar is an underlying sense of place - and of the horror creeping into and living through that place - that was common in so many of those older pictures, from the controlled atmospheric frenzy of Polanski and some of his contemporaries to the haunted domestic settings in the likes of Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Omen.

That I was thinking fondly of Sinister in the context of those predecessors is probably a good sign in and of itself. Like many of those movies, this one is set primarily in a single location - more specifically, a family residence - and uses that space as a sort of psychological bubble where terrors both imagined and real can breed.

The house in question brings with it its own set of secrets. Not long ago it was a crime scene, the site of a mass hanging of the family that lived there. All but one child in the family were accounted for; the missing daughter has essentially been left for dead. The hanging tree remains triumphantly upright in the backyard, a cruel symbol of the house's legacy.

None of this is a secret to Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime author who moves his family to this new suburban house, neglecting to mention the small detail of their new home's violent history. He's on a short leash as it is. He's done this before - moved his family close to a crime scene in order to gather material, only to become obsessed with the case he's writing about. This time, he promises his wife (played by Juliet Rylance in a performance that screams, "We really wanted Naomi Watts for this part but we couldn't afford her so we got someone who kind of looks like her and kind of talks like her"), it's different. Nothing to see here!

When Ellison finds a box of Super 8 footage in the attic, he's disturbed - but not surprised - to find footage from not only the murder he's investigating, but several similar cases from decades past. It's always the same result - a massacred family and a missing child - but the methodology is new each time around.

Quite by accident (not entirely unlike David Hemmings' photographer from Blow-up), Ellison notices something else in the footage - what appears to be some sort of ominous figure showing up faintly in the backgrounds and shadows of each video. A closer look at the footage reveals what looks to be the skinny, lesser-known third member of the Insane Clown Posse.

After the obligatory Google research scene, Ellison stumbles onto the work of a local professor, Jonas, an expert on the occult and the supernatural played by an uncredited Vincent D'Onofrio in a pair of scenes that I can only assume D'Onofrio shot from his own house in his own pajamas. Jonas identifies the mysterious figure as Bughuul, a Pagan deity who consumes the souls of children.

The other key role is the local deputy (played by James Ransome - Ziggy from season two of The Wire) - who volunteers to help with the investigation in hopes of earning a spot in the acknowledgments section of Ellison's upcoming book. Ransome provides an offbeat comedic element that proves invaluable, imbuing the deputy with equal doses of charming desperation and earnest concern, both for the case itself and for Ellison's diminishing state of mind. (In fact, Ransome elevates the film during much of its soggy middle, particularly the often-unconvincing subplots involving Ellison's drinking problem and marital strife.)

What lifts Sinister above its occasional narrative potholes is the care Derrickson takes in establishing his setting, and the time he takes to build up to (and thus earn) each moment of fear and tension. Consider his imagery - the way he utilizes persistently low lighting and an almost monochromatic color scheme to sustain a sense of disquiet and sorrow. The suspense is as strong as it is because it comes from space that we actually get to inhabit. Rather than simply being manipulated with editing and an overabundance of close-ups, Derrickson relies on wide shots and long takes, allowing his characters (and us along with them) to wait, and wonder, and squirm.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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