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rochefort [Film Festival 03.13.12] horror thriller crime

Year: 2012
Directors: Scott Derrickson
Writers: C. Robert Cargill
IMDB: link
Trailer: N/A
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 5 out of 10

"Sinister", the new supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Ethan Hawke as a past-his-prime true crime writer, opens with a shot of a family being hung from a tree in an apparent ritual mass-murder. It's raw and awful, and had the entire film followed in this vein, we'd have a new horror winner. But alas, style and substance collide yet again, turning what could have been a thoroughly intense picture into just another Saturday night diversion with a handful of good scares.

The hanging shot appears again when Hawke's character Ellison, who has moved his family into the house where the murders took place to better research his latest book, discovers a trunk full of super 8 movies that capture not just this grisly event but four more. Ellison is too curious (and too desperate for a hit) to immediately involve the local cops, who might not even help anyway since his previous books haven't been all that flattering in their depictions of the men in blue. So he embarks on the obsessed trajectory that characterizes a whole slew of horror protagonists, most of them architects of their own doom. Like "8MM"'s Tom Welles or even Lenny Nero in "Strange Days", Ellison pieces together a little more of the bigger picture every time he views a new reel. Of course, the deeper he gets the more he loses his grasp on his own sanity, and his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) becomes more and more savvy as to just how questionable some of her husband's decisions have been of late.

Ellison takes a chance and enlists the aid of a local Deputy (James Ransome, in the pic's best performance) who tries to find the connective tissue of the murders in the reels, all of which have taken place over the course of several decades and, besides the general style of each, seem unrelated. Ellison is the one to find the first real link: a creepy, pasty-faced wraith that shows up in the occasional frame, an entity that may or may not be the same as a figure named "Mr. Boogie" that he finds in a handful of children's drawings. By now the eerie occurrences around the house are starting to pile up, and Ellison must choose between following through on his obsession or doing what's right for his family.

While there are elements that will, perhaps unfairly, draw comparisons to last year's "Insidious" (the title, for instance), "Sinister" avoids a few of that other film's narrative pitfalls, and its production values are much crisper and more consistent throughout. One favorable comparison is that, like "Insidious", "Sinister" has some inarguably chilling moments. But it also calls to mind so many other dark tales of obsession, from "The Wicker Man" to "The Shining" to the aforementioned "8MM", that the real test ends up being whether or not Derrickson and company can bring anything fresh to the proceedings. Perhaps the most intriguing decision was to make a "found footage" film that doesn't rely on that device throughout, and in those terms this is definitely not a direct knock-off of "Paranormal Activity", but the plot, strangely enough, is extremely similar. And since Ellison is watching the 8mm reels one at a time, with dramatic breathers in between, the plot takes on an obligatory pace, leaving most of us wondering how an obsessed writer wouldn't just marathon the whole pile in one sitting, nerves be damned. Also frustrating is the fact that his ally the Deputy (or "Deputy So-and-So", as Ellison calls him) is the one who does the real legwork and essentially figures out the main mystery, while the seasoned crime writer basically stays at home every day and drinks himself rotten, stopping only to follow the strange noises erupting in the attic.

The script by C. Robert Cargill nonetheless has a few really welcome touches. The characters are, for the most part, nicely drawn, and even the cranky Sheriff (played by ex-Presidential hopeful Fred Thompson) comes off like a real person instead of a red herring auxiliary threat. Vincent D'Onofrio has a low-key extended cameo as a college professor who helps fill in the missing data cracks, and even Ellison's two kids are fairly tolerable in their brief moments onscreen, the script wisely resisting the temptation to turn the volume up with any of them. But director Derrickson doesn't always demonstrate the same level of restraint, and fills many of the scenes with overwrought music, paint-by-numbers reveals of ghosts and clues, and way too many bumps and jump scares. It's this refusal (or inability) to just trust the tone of the work and keep the frills to a minimum that relegates "Sinister" to the wannabe stack. Sometimes the best way to sound new is to send the backing orchestra home and just play the song, you know? "Sinister", had it not been so preoccupied with densing things up, might have had the time and energy left over to fix the flaws of its narrative and give us something really special.

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