Sunday, March 3, 2013
You know that idiom about curiosity and what it does to cats? Yeah, well, if you ever happen to stumble across an old box of Super 8 film reels in your attic, it's probably best that you smile politely, say "well-played," then pack up the family and get the hell out of there, speed limits be damned.
If Ethan Hawke's character in 2012's fine horror offering, Sinister, had heeded my advice, things would have been a whole lot easier. Then again, we wouldn't have this surprisingly good and creepy movie to give us a cautionary tale about leaving some things alone.
Written by C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson, Sinister sort caught me by surprise like that old friend you accidentally run into on a sidewalk after eating a delicious pizza. A pleasant surprise, and you feel pretty good about it. The movie kicks right off with a disturbing mystery seen through the lens of a Super 8 film camera. Four hooded figures - a family, one would rightly presume - slowly hung in a tree as a falling branch hoists them up. Scratchy, off-putting ambient music plays as we get an unflinching view of their demise, and it's a mystery as to who they are and why it happened. Months later, true crime writer Ellison Oswald (Hawke) and his family move into the very house where the murders occurred so Oswald can produce his next blockbuster, which he sorely needs. Things aren't easy though: he "forgets" to tell his family about the house's history and the townspeople, like the sheriff (former senator Fred Thompson), don't exactly like his sensationalism in their mourning town.
Going through the house one night, Oswald finds a box of old Super 8 film canisters labeled with such innocent titles as "Pool Party '66" and "Sleepy Time '98." As he watches them, the sweet scenes turn into horrific ones, as each family is brutally murdered - all but one, as with each tragic event, one child in the family goes missing. At first, the murders don't seem connected, but Oswald becomes obsessed and he's no slouch in the detective department. Much like in The Shining, Oswald becomes more involved with his book and the investigation than his family, who is not adjusting well to the new digs. His daughter wants to go back to their old house and his son's night terrors increase in intensity.
Oswald sees a mysterious figure in one, then all of the videos, presiding over all of the murders. He also uncovers an occult symbol and enlists Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio) to help decipher it. When he discovers the truth, he pretty much wishes he hadn't asked in the first place. With the help of a local deputy, Oswald puts most of the pieces together and it isn't exactly a yellow brick road from that point onward. Yep, that's right...not gonna spoil it.
I had heard that Sinister was pretty good, and those rumblings were correct. It has a familiar plot - mystery with a family in possibly supernatural danger - but the way in which it's presented delivered for me. The Super 8 shots provide just enough "found footage" that it fills in certain blanks and makes your skin crawl. The ambient sound and music, especially during those scenes, was a highlight. There's a mythology, but the movie didn't get lost in it. It gives you just enough information without going too far with it. Ethan Hawke is quite good as the burned-out writer looking for his comeback, balancing between being excited for juicy new secrets and being horrified by what he sees on the films. It's a creepy film, eschewing the "pretty people" formula of most mainstream horror flicks. I just realized how "hipster" that made me sound, but it's true. It's honestly a step in the right direction. There were a couple moments of "jump scares" that made me utter a slightly disappointed "bah" sound, but other than those, it was very, very effective.
So, hey, moving into a new house? Kids drawing strange pictures on the walls? Find a box of old films in the attic?
Yeah, you might want to get out now.