Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sinister (2012)

True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), with a career ever on the downward path after his first book hit big, has a modus operandi that isn't bound to make him any friends: he and his family - wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) - move to the community where the crimes Ellison is going to write about took place in what one can't help but assume is some sort of writer method acting; writing highly critical of the local police generally follows. Needless to say, it's not a very good way to make friends, or have a peaceful family life.

This time around, in his quest to solve the murders of a family of four and the disappearance of their daughter, Ellison even goes a step further. Without anyone's knowledge but Ellison's, the Oswalts move into the house the victims lived in and in whose backyard they died by hanging. Tracy is sure going to be happy if she finds out.

On the very first day in the house, the writer finds a box full of super-8 movies. Instead of the expected home movies, these films show a series of murders that began some time in the 1960s. The find seems to set something in motion around Ellison. Increasingly bizarre things happen to him in the house at night, things that soon enough can't be explained away as natural anymore. The writer's further research turns up disquieting facts that suggest the murders could be part of an occult ritual connected to a Babylonian godhood known as The Eater of Children. The more Ellison learns and suspects, the more horrifying his nights become.

It's as if Ellison's attempts to find a hidden truth had started a process leading - perhaps - to knowledge but also to an inexorable doom.

I'm repeating myself, I think, yet it's still true: sometimes, writing about the films that impress me the most - or in this particular case actually leave this hardened horror movie watcher anxious and not too happy to be rather close to his bed time at the time of writing - is the most difficult because whatever I could write about a movie like Sinister makes an inspired achievement in the "horror movie as nightmare" part of the genre sound like just another well-made movie. Of course, Scott Derrickson's Sinister is a well-made movie, one where sound and vision (hi, David!) very consciously come together to near hypnotic effect, where no scene hasn't a clear - and in hindsight often rather horrifying - reason to be on screen. Sinister is a tight film, seemingly slow-paced but actually relentlessly economic, with more than one sequence I find difficult to get out of my mind now.

Of course, I'm pretty much the ideal viewer for this sort of thing; supernatural horror about weird, ritualistic occurrences, films with a tendency to let the real slowly bleed into the realm of nightmare (or maybe the other way around), horror that is beholden to the Weird, all belong to a fictional area where I feel at home. I'm bound to like a film like this nearly automatically, particularly when it is so damn good at what it does as Sinister is. There are a lot of ideas and concepts in here I love in horror: the unstoppable doom once a protagonist has quite innocently stepped over an invisible line dividing the quotidian world from something dark and not really explicable, the strange and psychologically horrific mechanisms of said doom, the base in a vague mythology that isn't meant to explain things but rather to make them feel more pervasive, the way the film uses the sinister undertones and physicality of analogue film technology, the intensity with which the personal drama and failings of the protagonist and the basis of the horror are feeding off each other without the whole affair turning into a morality play where the abnatural's function is to punish the protagonist for these failings (the film's universe seems much crueller, or just less moral than that).

I could go on and on and never truly get to the point of what makes Sinister so special, so I'm just going to shut up and recommend anyone interested in horror to watch it in a cop-out write-up ending I stole from mainstream film critics.

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