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. 


  1. I may see this before it leaves theaters, based on your fine review, Joe. I have to say, finally catching THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE this month for the first time, how engrossed I was with it. Now, I'm doing a week of posts on THE EXORCIST, and I thought this 2005 demonic possession film a worthy one. And there have been so, so many since '73.

    Also, while I agree 8MM has its significant problems, I thought its cutting away and looking at the reactions from the movies themselves, as Cage's character did, was effective. It let the audience conjure up their own nightmarish thoughts, especially if it was something of a 'snuff' film. BTW, did you see JKM's post on the worst film he's seen yesterday?

    When I read the title of the question I instantly had my answer. That would be a film I actually showed back in '76 during my projectionist stint. That would be the infamous Snuff. And yes, the movie is what the title purports. A fictional account of a supposed actual 'snuff' film (it was made in South America). The loathing I have for it remains undiminished more than three decades later.

    Thanks, Joe. This has been a great series for this month, in case I haven't already mentioned it.

  2. Thanks, Michael! This has been a very rewarding experiment... I never imagined that I would enjoy such a high percentage of these films. I'd love to hear what you think of SINISTER... and THE LAST EXORCISM.

    Off to read John's post...

  3. Good review Joe. It’s scary, that’s for sure, and definitely has a creepy vibe to it but does get a little silly by the end. Thankfully, Ethan Hawke stays believable the whole time and kept me involved when my mind was telling me otherwise.

  4. Thanks for writing, Dan. I tried not to get too spoiler-y about the ending of SINISTER... but, yeah, I think "silly" is the right word. I liked the concept, but thought the execution was over the top.

    It looks like you've also been obsessing about horror movies this month... I'll have to get caught up on your reviews over the next few days.

    Happy Halloween!