Sinister (2012)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never been a fan of Anchorman and all of its sayings that some fans will spit back at you ad-verbatim like it’s still a fresh and exciting movie, and not something that’s now eight years old. But one quote, or scene, does stick with me – and that’s the one in which Steve Carell‘s character just exclaims “LOUD NOISES!” as his contribution to an argument. It was funny. It was apt. So why am I bringing this up in a review that’s not for The Campaign? Well, because I don’t think there’s any other phrase, spare “LOUD NOISES!” that really sums up horror movies of the past five years. Does Sinister follow this well trod path, or is it something altogether more… sinister?

The set up for the film is that true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family to a new town so that he can write his new book about some grizzly murders that happened there: a quadruple hanging. Of course, Ellison decides to move the family into the exact house where the hangings happened (unbeknown to his family) so that he can draw inspiration from the surroundings and maybe uncover a thing or two about the unsolved murders. But Ellison uncovers a box of film in the attic that explicitly details a series of brutal murders all featuring a rather evil looking presence. Obviously, I can’t divulge much more, but that’s the premise. But is it any good?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. I also can’t help but feel that Sinister and Insidious have more in common than a single word title. Let me make this clear: I thought Insidious was an OK horror movie that had a solid narrative… for the first 2/3 of the film. That last act was appalling and looked like it was shot in a high school drama class. Honestly – the “make up” on the “big bad red faced demon” was abysmal. That whole ending left a sour taste in my mouth. But the main problem with Insidious and Sinister is their reliance on the aforementioned LOUD NOISES! The films rarely employ true terror or fear. The vast majority of the jumps come from cheap amplified noises. This isn’t horror. This is just making people jump. I could pop a balloon behind you right now and you’d jump. It’s not horror or terror – it’s surprise. This is why I can’t really say that Sinister distinguishes itself from the pack. It’s more of the same.

Ethan Hawke is fantastic here… even if he does look like Johnny “Drama” Chase…

I will however say that the plot, whilst supernatural and a little forced, works well. I enjoyed the general premise of the film as a whole and I really must commend Ethan Hawke here. He seamlessly holds the film together and really slogs it out on-screen. It’s refreshing to have a horror movie that’s genuinely well acted by its lead protagonist. One thing I’ve got to mention though… since when did Johnny “Drama” Chase from HBO’s Entourage (RIP) start acting in films? In the trailers I swore that Ethan Hawke was Kevin Dillon – they look almost identical. I was half expecting to see Turtle and E run on-screen and make the film into a total Bromance (yes, I loved Entourage, and can’t let go of it). But getting back on track: Hawke is brilliant. That’s not to say the rest of the cast are slouches, but they never stood out in the same way. James Ransone‘s Deputy was the comic relief and Juliet Rylance ably portrayed Hawke‘s wife, Tracy, but the children? Eh… less noteworthy. They’re no Pierce Gagnon, that’s for sure. Can’t we cast him in all films from now on? And cast Tom Hardy in there too? I’d pay.

If you shhh it makes the LOUD NOISES even LOUDER!!

Whilst I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Sinister, I almost knew what I was going to get from the outset. As soon as I see all of these “terrifying”, “you won’t sleep at night” and “best horror of the decade” quotes I’m immediately suspicious. Especially when they come from small-time horror film sites about as big as Film Phage – hey, it’s true, we’re small time  here (for now…). I just feel that either the standards for horror are slipping, or that people have forgotten what it’s like to be truly terrified by a film. Maybe I’m just hard to scare in that regard, but I didn’t feel tense or have an feeling of horror for the entire runtime. It was just interesting. I still say that nothing has come close to capturing the nuanced horror of Rec or even The Ring upon first viewing in a darkened cinema. There’s just too much emphasis on cheap jumps as opposed to psychologically terrifying someone. Although it’s lambasted, you’ve got to credit the original Paranormal Activity for at least trying this and making people doubt their own eyesight. A clever innovation. A clever innovation that will not be found in Sinister, despite Hawke‘s best efforts.

The only thing truly sinister about Sinister is how they managed to amass so many positive quotes from fellow critics that made the film seem the equivalent of a live-action ritual sacrifice with demons emerging from the lacerated corpse. Instead what we have is a film with a solid plot and a dodgy sound system that spikes way too often.

I’ll say one thing: Sinister beats out The Possession as best horror film I’ve seen in the past few weeks, but considering that’s its only competition that’s not saying much. With only Paranormal Activity 4 and perhaps Silent Hill: Revelations still to go, it could be another very unscary Halloween. LOUD NOISES!!!

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The Possession (2012)

With so many movies based on “true stories” nowadays, you’ve got to applaud the current generation of screen-writers. Not because they’re doing a remarkable job adapting these “true stories”, but because surely it’s making their job of writing fiction so much more difficult? Demons? Please! They definitely exist, as Paranormal Activity has shown. Ghosts you say? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was covered in An American Haunting. Witches? Oh come on – The Blair Witch Project (probably) proved that. So what does The Possession – the newest “based on a true story” horror film bring to the table …? Yup, demons again. Fear not Twilight, we’ve not yet caught wussy “vegetarian” vampires on film…

As you may have astutely ascertained from the title of the film, the story revolves around the premise of demonic possession. Here, the tale focuses on a sealed box that is bought for young Em (Natasha Calis) by her dad, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Naturally, there’s something odd about the box – its sealed tight, but what lies inside? Yes indeed – some vengeful demon! Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler. What did you think it’d have in it? Coco Pops? Cue a demonic possession horror story that you’ve probably seen time and time again.

The trouble with the film is that it’s so derivative, although I must admit it’s hard for a writer to pen a tale of demonic possession and not have people say “oh, it’s like The Exorcist then?”. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that The Possession lurches from cliché to cliché of modern horror at a staggering pace. Firstly, there’s the lack of true scares. As with last year’s Insidious, we’re bombarded with ramped up sound effects to “scare” us. These aren’t scary – they’re startling and jarring. Then you have the target of the demon. If you had to picture someone in your mind, what would he / she look like? Young? Check. A girl? Check. Dark hair? A bit like Samara from The Ring? Well done – go collect 10 Phage points from the kiosk because that’s what you’re given! Why can’t someone break this tradition and cast a young, Indian boy as the target of the demon? At least that would be an attempt at being different.

In terms of the acting on display, I must say it wasn’t bad at all. Certain actors in the piece are actually the film’s redeeming feature. I thought 13 year old Natasha Calis acted very admirably and hit all the right notes. Too bad her make-up department decided that a look akin to a cross between Beetlejuice and the WWF’s Undertaker from circa 1994 was the correct way to emphasise she was “possessed” in the latter stages. However, it was Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, The Losers) that really held the piece together playing a divorced dad with ambitions of coaching big league basketball. I know that the sub-plot of his basketball coaching was totally unnecessary, but I’d have been happy to see more of it. Or maybe I was hoping the film would turn into Moneyball with basketballs.

Samara from The Ring, by way of Beetlejuice and The Undertaker… Can’t guess she’s possessed at all…

But back on point, I thought Morgan really shone here, and he was clearly the most fleshed-out character in the script. This led to supporting roles such as older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) and the mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) coming across as extremely shallow and yes – clichéd – as neither believes in the possession until it’s too late. And before you wonder whether it at least ends in a unique way, then… no. I obviously won’t tell you what unfolds, but you probably already know in your heart of hearts if you’ve seen any horror film from the past 5 years.

They’re not an anti-Semetic family; they just love to get a bit rowdy when they headbang to Metallica.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no point in writing stories of possession as they’re always clichéd. For instance, I thought 2010’s The Last Exorcism was a great take on the idea and was also a damn good film. Even The Exorcism of Emily Rose attempted something different, even if it did fall flat. I just don’t know why writers, directors and studios are succumbing to this horrible trend of loud noises equating to horror. I mean, this has Sam Raimi up on the posters (he’s a producer) – the man responsible for The Evil Dead – and still nothing innovative comes through. A true horror should insidiously work its way into your psyche and have your nerves shredded. As much as the series is lambasted by purists, at least Paranormal Activity (at least the first one) really draws the audience in and has them recoiling in terror owing to the tension. For me, no film has surpassed the terror pay-offs of Rec (original Spanish version) and The Ring. Those films ended with a bang and really had my nerves shot on first viewing. Sadly, The Possession comes no-where near these two juggernauts or anything Asian cinema has spat out recently.

The Possession isn’t the worst horror movie you’ll see this autumn as we close in on Halloween. That I can more or less guarantee. But it’s never going to be regarded as a classic, nor even “one to pick up on DVD”. I’d recommend a rental when it hits stores if you’re into possession stories, or if you’re looking to hook up with that girl from down the street when you have a DVD night. I’m not saying the content is erotic (unless she’s a really freaky chick), but at least it might have her jumping into your arms if you have the 5.1 booted up. Especially if she’s a Twilight fan, as all she’s used to is wussy vampires and wimpy werewolves. In fact, go grab that glitter, sprinkle it on your chest and then watch The Possession. If that doesn’t work, then I don’t know what will.

Aside from a winning personality, a stunning smile and a healthy disposable income.

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