Sinister (2012)

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*. I mentioned in my notes on Ringu that a movie about a haunted VHS tape was about the stupidest idea for a horror film you could imagine, making Ringu all the more remarkable for being as good as it was.
*. I hadn’t yet seen Sinister, which has a whole collection of haunted Super 8 home movies. At least we can be thankful that Ellison’s kids didn’t decide to make their own documentary of the whole experience. All that’s missing from Sinister is a shaky cam. Oh, wait . . .
*. Ringu, or The Ring, was apparently the direct inspiration for the film, as the screenwriter C. Robert Cargill had a nightmare after watching The Ring that gave him the basic idea. Which doesn’t mean that it’s a rip-off but does suggest a certain lack of originality.
*. Even before we get to the discovery of the film canisters in the attic (something that should have been tripping all kinds of alarms in Ellison’s head, by the way), the premise is pretty far-fetched. A true-crime author with writer’s block decides to move his family to the very house where a terrible group murder has just taken place in order to draw on the location for inspiration? And he doesn’t bother telling anyone in his family about it, despite the fact that they’re bound to find out within 24 hours of moving in? Or would be bound to find out if this wasn’t a movie.
*. The sense I had of this being a generic thriller was compounded by other borrowings and repetitions. The demon Bughuul, for example, recalls a whole bunch of iconic baddies, though his look was apparently most directly inspired by so-called black-metal band corpse-paint make-up. I thought he might be one of the hulking baddies from a Rob Zombie flick, but I guess that comes to the same thing. The resulting figure is like a fuzzy composite, and was reportedly discovered by the filmmakers after browsing half a million images on the Internet to find one they liked. This seemed weird to me. Couldn’t they have just come up with their own design? Would that have been too expensive? Too much work?
*. Of course any movie is made out of other movies, and this is particularly the case when working in genre. On the commentaries the following titles are mentioned as sources/inspiration: The Shining (for the script), Devil Times Five (a,k.a. Peopletoys or The Horrible House on the Hill) for the gang of killer kids, Manhunter for the home video of the family being killed in their beds. Once you start noticing these borrowings there’s no end to them.

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*. I thought it interesting, however, that no one mentions Blow-Up on either of the commentaries, though it seems a clear source for Ellison’s piecing together the different films and printing out stills, enlarging them, and pinning them to his wall to study. Instead, Blow Out is referred to as the influence for this sequence. This puzzled me, as Blow Out is itself taken from Blow-Up and is a far less obvious source. I don’t think there’s any chance Derrickson hadn’t seen Blow-Up, is there? One thing you can say about most directors, no matter how young, is that they’ve seen a lot of movies.
*. I might have missed where they said when it was the previous family had been hanged in the backyard. It couldn’t have been all that long before Ellison moves in, because the date on the new film canister is 2012 and — even more tellingly — the branch that had to be sawn through in order to hang the family is still there! It hasn’t been cleared away! Wouldn’t the police have wanted to take it for inspection? Wouldn’t the real estate agent have had it removed?
*. Just what is a pagan Babylonian deity doing in Pennsylvania anyway? Child-eating tourism? I had the same problem with Pazuzu and Regan. Don’t these powerful evil entities have better things to get on with? I also don’t know why Bughuul goes through such elaborate dramatics to scare the heck out of his victims first, which was also something I wondered about with the Paranormal Activity films.
*. I love how there’s always a prof at “the university” who’s an expert on this stuff. Is that Miskatonic U?
*. The past tense of “hang” when referring to a method of execution is “hanged” not “hung.” As a writer, Ellison should have known that. But then, co-writer Derrickson also gets it wrong on the director’s commentary track so maybe it’s no longer common knowledge.
*. Do many kids who have trouble with nightmares and sleepwalking hide themselves in cardboard boxes and then spring out backwards in order to scare people, all without waking up? Derrickson says it’s shocking but it really happens and he’s experienced it. What he means, however, is that his son would just start screaming in his sleep. Not that he had a habit of jumping out of cardboard boxes.

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*. The family’s economic situation had me concerned. It seems that Ellison is the sole breadwinner but hasn’t had a hit book for a while. He says they’re in desperate straits and have moved in to the new home (which is actually quite modest) because it was available at a knockdown price. Which I can understand. But by moving back to their previous home (which looks like a multi-million dollar mansion and is meant to show the heights from which the family has fallen), basically writing off the haunted death-house, haven’t they committed financial suicide? Oh well. I guess they’re all dead at the end anyway.
*. Only writers are allowed to wear sweaters like Ellison’s. It’s how you know they’re writers. It even has elbow patches! Underneath, he wears a t-shirt from a liberal arts college in Vermont. The lanyard and college were Ethan Hawke’s idea. He’s a writer too, you know.
*. Derrickson: “I don’t have a sweater like that, but I have my own writing sweater that I wear all the time . . . it’s just a writer-type thing to do.” I wonder if he keeps his glasses on a lanyard.
*. As a true-crime writer Ellison may be the tops, but as a researcher? Why does he need Deputy So-and-so to look up stuff that he could have found out for himself in about two minutes using Google?
*. Again we have a guy looking for the source of whatever’s going bump in the night with the aid of a flashlight instead of just turning on the lights. Admittedly, in one scene it’s because the power has mysteriously gone out, but this is easy to miss. Meanwhile, Derrickson says on the commentary that he doesn’t think there are any other scenes where Ellison would have turned on the lights. Well, that’s his opinion. I counted at least two other scenes where Ellison wanders through the house in the dark looking for intruders without turning the lights on, including the one where all the kids are running around behind him. The charge that Ethan Hawke doesn’t know how to operate a light switch isn’t a bum rap in this film.
*. Derrickson: “I wanted the movie to be exceedingly dark. I wanted it to be one of the darkest films people would see in a theatre in their life.” Apparently Klute was the “biggest visual influence” in this respect and the aim was to make a low-budget film look bigger by invoking the spirit of Caravaggio. Which I think maybe it did, even as it threw probability out the window. I’m also not sure making the movie look big was the way to go in such a thriller since a feeling of claustrophobia would have worked well too. Still, if dark is what he wanted, dark is sure as hell what he got.

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*. There are worse implausibilities than the lighting. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why Ellison didn’t take the snuff films directly to the police as soon as he found them. I suppose they would have magically disappeared or turned blank, but he wouldn’t have known that in advance.
*. Both Derrickson and Cargill describe this not handing the movies over the police as the key turning point in the plot and I’m sorry to say it doesn’t make sense. Derrickson says that Ellison’s decision is part of a “Faustian bargain” he makes. I don’t see it. Is the idea that if he calls the police and gives them the films then he won’t have a book? That seems a thin rationalization, and gets increasingly thinner as things progress.
*. It’s a very minor thing, but that’s a really fake looking rain storm outside the window of the mansion at the end. And the shots of it don’t match up because in one shot the rain isn’t hitting the window and in the next it’s pouring down the glass.
*. Derrickson: “I like the fact that this movie ends bad, I like the fact that it ends dark, I think there’s too much of an impulse in Hollywood to end horror films on an up note.” Really? I found the downbeat ending typical of the horror films of this period, from The Blair Witch Project through all the Paranormal Activity movies. In any event the conclusion feels a bit rushed. We all know where this is going and it’s wound up quickly without much in the way of suspense or horror.
*. The business with the kids hushing with their fingers to their lips doesn’t work at all and the destruction of the family isn’t so much scary as it is simply depressing and unpleasant, with Mr. Boogie as a Hallowe’en-store Peter Pan taking the little girl off to Neverland.
*. The first time I saw Sinister I thought it was a reasonably effective thriller up till the end, and this may be the only judgment that really counts. The second time I watched it I found it uninteresting and a bit ridiculous. Bughuul has no real aura about him, and the conceit of a scary movie about a guy watching scary movies doesn’t work that well after a while since the Super 8s aren’t nearly as threatening as the video in Ringu. I don’t think it’s a movie that’s going to wear well, but it did good box office (it was very cheaply made) and there was a sequel.

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