You know, I’ve very pretentious with my Horror films. I love the genre, or what it used to be. Anyone who knows me, knows my disdain for current modern horror. I think it sucks. In the last 10 years, we went from dozens of Asian dead girl ripoffs (The Ring, The Grudge, etc), to boring torture porn (SAW 1-100), and now we’re on a kick between dumb ghost infestations and possessions (Paranormal Activity, The Apparition, etc.) that all rely on cheap blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scares and loud sound effects. But, I get it, it’s the horror genre. It’s not that deep. You’re SUPPOSED to be scared. But come on, I miss the days when horror films had cool monsters and used lighting and ambiance as an effective mood setter. Hey, I warned you! I get pretty pretentious. There have only been a very small number of horror films in the past decade that truly worked for me. All others I’ve gone in expecting the worst, and left having received exactly that. So the question is, was Sinister as bad as I expected it to be?
Surprisingly, no. A true crime author (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into the same house that an unsolved murder took place, in which four family members were hung from a tree in the backyard, while the youngest daughter went missing. He discovers a box of old Super 8 reels in the attic that turn out to be recordings of several grizzly murders, including the backyard hanging, and becomes obsessed with them, as he unravels their meaning. That idea was just interesting enough to hold my attention. I think at times, the premise really dropped the ball and became too cheesy and typical, though. Such as the film’s monster, an old Pagan deity named the Bagul (pronounced “Buh-gool”) who has been killing the families, which in itself is fine, I can dig that, but his reason for doing so is because he feeds upon children. This was so eye-roll inducing that I couldn’t suck my eyeballs into the back of my head fast enough.
When it comes to the horror genre, there is a fine line between showing your creature/monster either too much or too little, and with Sinister it stayed far into the “too little” category. I appreciate and respect a horror film keeping it’s movie’s “thing” in the shadows and keeping an air of mystery shrouded around it. You never want to bludgeon the audience with your monster so much that it’s not even scary anymore, but you also don’t want to show him so little that it feels underwhelming. With Sinister, the Bagul is shown for maybe all of a collective 2 minutes. I found myself wanting to see him more, because he WAS a pretty cool looking monster. FUN FACT: The Bagul actually has somewhat of a sense of humor. Check out the titles of those Super 8 films. It almost had me begging for a post credit scene of him sitting in an attic snickering to himself while writing a snarky title on top of the reel lid.
After the screening, I stood around and talked about the film with a couple of friends and other critics, and as we talked about everything we had just seen, I kept finding myself comparing it to Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film The Strangers. As I mentioned earlier, there are only a small handful of horror titles that actually hit the mark for me within the past decade, and that film was one of them. The way that it used lighting and sound design/ambiance and the amount of time given to the film’s three killers was really effective to me. Dare I say one of the most effective audio tracks I’ve ever heard in a horror film (although, I’m sure there are many people out there ready to debate me on that).
While Sinister didn’t exactly have as good of an audio track (a series of weird musical tracks that played over the Super 8 films diluting what could have been effective ambient 8mm reel pops is a prime example) , it certainly used it’s lighting in a very effective and interesting way, forcing the viewer to really examine everything visible, as a friend and fellow critic said. I couldn’t agree more. Sinister‘s cinematography was definitely the best thing about the film, in my opinion, allowing me to view it as slightly higher than a standard crappy horror flick.
Going back on the discussion that took place after the screening, the more the film was discussed and analyzed, the more I started appreciating what I had just seen. Despite the eye-roll inducing horror stereotypes that plagued the screenplay, Sinister actually was somewhat of a success. You’ve got a fine performance from Ethan Hawke, an inexplicably cool cameo from Vincent D’Onofrio, and a fairly good premise. I’d say for as pretentious of a horror fan as I am, Sinister did actually somewhat work for me, and if I had to suggest a theatrical horror film for you to see this year, it’d probably be this one, given the current and planned releases in the genre.
I give Sinister 3 lawnmowers out of 5:
By Richard Pepper