Tuesday, October 23, 2012
30 Days of Nightmares #27: SINISTER (2012)
The Story: A troubled true crime writer moves his wife and children into a house where a family was murdered, hoping he can get a bestselling book out of the unsolved mystery.
Expectations: SINISTER is being sold as the product of horror's current dream team: Blumhouse Productions, the company responsible for the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series and INSIDIOUS. The title is obviously a nod to the latter, which was 2010's highest grossing horror film, but I imagined SINISTER fitting in with an even larger group of recent supernatural thrillers. In my mind, this subgenre has undergone a renaissance over the past few years. Movies about ghosts and demons are certainly nothing new, but they seem to be more popular than ever... and, what's really surprising, more effective than ever.
There are of course plenty of undistinguished copycats of the PARANORMAL movies, but there is also a new wave of slick young horror filmmakers who really know how to make a nuanced horror film. I'm thinking in particular of Ti West's THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) and THE INNKEEPERS (2011), and Daniel Stamm's THE LAST EXORCISM (2010). Scott Derrickson can also claim a spot in this vanguard of new masters of horror, based on his surprisingly effective THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005). What convinced me to take a chance on his new film was his recent Inside Horror interview.
In the interview, Derrickson talked about trying to do something different with the "found footage" formula. SINISTER, he said, is basically a movie about a guy watching movies. My first thought was, Wouldn't that distance the audience too much from the horror? Instead of being one step removed from the action, with a movie screen between the viewer and the action, the viewer is two steps/screens removed. Derrickson anticipated this problem, and reassured the hosts that he had learned from the mistakes of 8MM (1999), a rather ineffective movie about Nicholas Cage watching snuff movies. The director said that he realized that the problem with 8MM was that it was always cutting back to the reaction of the viewer-within-the-movie. With SINISTER, he resolved to focus on the found footage for extended periods of time so that viewers could have their own genuine reaction to it. I was intrigued.
Reaction: It didn't seem to me like Derrickson followed his own advice. He clearly knows how to build suspense and how to stage a scare scene, but that movie-within-a-movie aspect kept me from ever getting emotionally involved. For me, the found footage was always too brief... and the film kept cutting back to the viewer-within-the-movie's reaction. To be fair, Ethan Hawke did a much better job reacting than Nicholas Cage. Whereas Cage spent an entire movie cringing in horror or gritting his teeth in anger, Hawke conveys an appropriate combination of morbid fascination and fear. I believe his obsession... but I never quite felt his fear. For most of the movie's running time, the threat seemed superficial to me. When he was watching the home movies of murdered families, all I could think was that MANHUNTER (1986) did it better. In that film, the criminal profiler played by William Peterson seemed to become an active part of the footage he was watching. There was no barrier between him and the horror.
I must add that I saw this film with three other people. Two out of three said they were genuinely unsettled by the movie. Also, there was a woman sitting in front of me who nearly jumped out of her seat on several occasions, and then cowered in her husband/boyfriend's shoulder for a few minutes afterward. The bottom line: Others apparently found it easier than I did to empathize with Ethan Hawke's character, and they were obviously more affected by the found footage. What can I say? I don't want to discourage anyone from seeing this. I just wish it had worked for me.
Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The thing that surprised and disturbed me the most was the revelation of the killer's identity.
Labels: 30 Days of Nightmares