Monday, November 5, 2012

A Frank Review of "Sinister" (2012)

The Short Version? The Amityville Book of 8mm Shadows.
What Is It? Attempted horror franchise starter.
Who Is In It? Ethan Hawke
Should I See It? Probably not.

Full disclosure: Would I have gone to a cinema to see an Ethan Hawke haunted house movie of my own volition? Dude, I wouldn't even have watched it free on cable. No flies on Hawke, who co-starred in a couple of my favorite movies, but I've heard secondhand that he's an awful writer and have seen firsthand that his choices of material to star in leave a lot to be desired. Even when he tackles an interesting experiment, like Richard Linklater's Tape, Hawke's attempts to play anyone but Ethan Hawke tend to be painfully hammy. As for ghost stories, well, I don't believe in them, they don't scare me, and I was bored by The Shining, a supposed horror classic. I went to work, I spent a few hours shopping, and then I saw a by-the-numbers spook show that Hawke was okay in and I don't describe as something I "endured" at my girlfriend's urging.

Ethan Hawke plays Ethan Hawke as a writer who had one major success published and is chasing an elusive second. Since that is one more authorial triumph than Hawke himself has managed, consider the cosplay therapeutic for the actor. Juliet Rylance plays his attractive wife who hasn't appeared in anything you've seen. Her performance is decent, but she has a distracting English accent. I can buy a one-hit wonder writer bagging a Brit, but the accent feels out of place. Each of her children have longer and stronger CVs, no accent to speak of, and the son has longer hair than the mother despite their not being rednecks or hair metal enthusiasts. The movie is itself fond of derivatives from Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails instrumentals, with dubstep elements adding period flavor.

Dad moves everybody to the murder house where a whole family was murdered because murder to write a murder book about their murders. Crusty republican senator Fred Thompson plays a crusty backwater sheriff whose attempts to run the clan off bookend the movie, by which I mean he's in two scenes. His presence is felt when a deputy played by James Ransone (alternating his characterization between Andy Griffith and Barney Fife) has to help the writer with his book in secret, even though he occasionally drives his police car into the driveway in a small town to have long chats in broad daylight. Deputy So-And-So (that's literally what they call him for most of the flick) is the exposition monkey, awkward and dumb when comic relief is helpful, a brilliant criminologist when required by the plot to explain to the writer that he is so fucked and the calls are coming from inside the house. Tavis Smiley and Vincent D'Onofrio are available for solid cameos.

If you've seen a trailer to Sinister (there are a few of them, and one is a few inches up on this very screen,) you've basically seen the movie. All of the advertising materials are spoilery as fuck. Between them and a rudimentary knowledge of the genre, you should be able to figure out every single turn of the plot right up to the "surprise" ending that can be easily worked out in the first act. There's is a sickening inevitability to it all, but no one is especially sympathetic (or well developed as a character,) so your level of investment in their collective fate may run to nil. Otherwise, the horror is all based around building to the jump scares that are used to sell the picture. I was startled several times, not because of building tension, but because I would start to doze off and then a THX-blasted musical cue would jolt me awake. Engaging the autonomic nervous system in a semiconscious subject does not constitute any real accomplishment on the filmmakers part.

Where the acting is journeyman and the script could have been constituted from lines taken out of other scripts, what holds it together as something palatable is the stylish direction of Scott Derrickson. Slick editing, smart visual ticks, and strong pacing sell through presentation what at its core is a rote story. If you like McParanormal's, these are value priced frights as comfortingly reliable as chicken nuggets, but with a tangy new dipping sauce. If you're more adventurous though, that predictability will likely aggravate more than agitate in the intended manner.

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