Let’s watch the scariest film ever made.
I’m sure my fellow horror aficionados heard that Sinister was recently hailed as the scientifically scariest movie ever made. I’m not linking the report here because I think that the main argument of monitoring heart rate isn’t the best scale, and I’d rather have you all google “good horror movies” anyway.
However, I did want to review this one to see if the argument had any merit on a narrative level.
Sinister follows true crime author Ellison (Ethan Hawke) who moves he and his family to a new home to study a brutal murder of a family where one of the children is missing, though the police believe she is dead. The cops are upset with Ellison as he apparently gets it wrong as much as he gets it right and has screwed up investigations. Now, Ellison is desperate for another hit and sees this as his last and best opportunity.
Ellison finds Super 8 videos that show the murder of the original family and many others. Convinced he is on to something, he dives into the mystery, but it seems like there might be something in the house. He now must work to solve the mystery before it is too late.
Idea wise, this is actually a good horror story. Having the protagonist as an author allows us to get insider information in a quick way, and this is probably the biggest reason why most horror novels have an author or a cop as the lead. However, I like that Ellison is focused on true crime and not a paranormal investigator. He seems incredulous towards the existence of the paranormal at all. He sees these crimes as something awful a human did to humans, which might have made for a better story.
Hawke and Juliet Rylance (Tracy) are an interesting pair in the film. When there is a clear emotion to be played, they do well. We get glimpses of a tense family dynamic that plays nicely. The emotive elements, when utilized, work well.
Unfortunately, there is quite a bit to like about this film. What makes this a negative is that there is so much wrong it becomes more of an annoyance than anything else. Some of the major issues are technical, others are directing.
Ellison believes the killer returned to the home to leave the videos, and then hears noises at night. The logical conclusion is that the killer (who he believes to be human) is making indirect contact with him. He never acts concerned enough when facing this possibility. Sure, we see him wander (slowly) through his home at night and sometimes he is armed. Yet, the slow reaction and snail pace seem more like someone not wanting to wake their kids rather than someone worried a murderer is prowling in the home.
While I would normally target the actors in this instance, I think the directing is more to blame. The lighting in this film is simply atrocious. We have several minutes of such darkness that it is impossible to tell what is going on. I think this is why the film increased heart rates—it is concentration rather than anxiety. The jump scares work okay in these moments mainly because you’re so impatient that you’ll be more easily startled. Though will you be scared?
What pisses me off about this film is that the super 8 videos are genuinely creepy. The ruthlessness of the killings shown raises the stakes in this film as there is clearly a real physical danger. So many horror films (particularly from Blumhouse) end up being rather bloodless and danger-less affairs once you step back. Here, whole families are being wiped out in ritualistic and brutal ways. We also get a surprisingly controlled “found footage” element here as the camera does not want to shine away from the brutality.
When we’re not with the super 8 films a vast majority of the film is simply unwatchable. I don’t find straining to see what the hell is going on a pleasurable experience. There is no mystery here (other than why we don’t turn on a light) and the cheap trick it is becomes painfully obvious. Hilariously, when the kid has a night terror, they take in outside in the middle of the night—I assume because they could see better under starlight than their crappily lit home.
I might be harping a bit on this singular technical issue, but it is so pervasive that you can’t escape it. No one would wander through the house this dark when danger is possible. Honestly, I imagine a lot of the stilted reactions and pacing to danger are related to the actors literally not being able to see what they are doing.
Aside from a technical flaw that basically ruins the film, we also get some inconsistent writing. Ellison is clever until he proves to be a moron. Okay, you’re not going to cops with all this new evidence for a book, fine. I can accept that premise. The need for money can make people desperate. However, he seems unwilling to accept help, drags his family into a crime scene, and ignores danger for no real reason. Why they had to move to the location the crimes occurred doesn’t make a lot of sense when we never see Ellison outside of the home. It isn’t like he is shown networking or researching.
Maybe we’re meant to not like Ellison. He is shown as moody, drinking too much, and flat out stupid in a lot of scenes. However, he’s our only guide through this, and we are given at least a near equal number of scenes where we’re supposed to root for him. The rest of the family become non-entities who only serve to give him someone to talk to (or ignore).
With all this said, I do not hate the movie. I think the root idea is interesting and that counts for a lot in my book. The problem is that the film does enough right to make the errors sharper in contrast, and all the more frustrating.
Certainly not the scariest ever.