Directed by Scott Derrickson
Distributed by Summit Entertainment
“But give me beasts and wild imaginings, and I’ll forgive any number of zips up the back and holes in the motivation. Come a little toward me with a genuine desire to scare, and I’ll more than meet you halfway.” –Clive Barker
There is so much that Scott Derrickson’s new film Sinister gets right. The director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose has crafted a good-looking, well-acted exercise in suspense that relies more on suggestion and mood than gore or bloodshed (but isn’t afraid to get grisly when it needs to). It has an iconic looking villain, a cast driven by adults, and a story that’s given weight by its lead character’s battle with his all-too-human flaws amidst the scary goings-on. Unfortunately, for all the film does well, it is hamstrung by some cheap jump scares, unbelievable character choices, and a last act revelation that can be seen from miles away.
True crime author Ellison Oswalt (a very good Hawke) is in need of a hit. Once lauded for his successful tome Kentucky Blood, Ellison has been searching for another gripping real-life tragedy to exploit in the wake of the failure of his last two books. Finding the inspiration he needs with the murder of an entire family in a small Pennsylvania town, Ellison uproots and moves his own brood into the home of the deceased in order to write a case study on the crime (while failing to tell his wife of the house’s morbid history – the family was hung from a large tree in their backyard). While rooting around in the attic, our hero stumbles upon a box of Super 8 films, each of them featuring the murder of a different family. Rather than turning this evidence over to the police, Ellison pursues an investigation that leads him afoul of a pagan deity named Bughuul (aka The Eater of Children, aka Mr. Boogie), all while his children begin exhibiting strange behavior and his marriage begins to crumble. Things gets pretty dark from there on out.
Working from a screenplay by himself and C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson knows just how to tighten the screws on his hero (and his audience) to inflict the maximum amount of psychological damage. Each time the Super 8 projector starts up (the various home movie murders are doled out throughout the film), one can’t help but grip the chair arm or break into a sweat. While some of the scares in the film are little more than hokey “gotchas!”, other moments are so perfectly crafted and genuinely disturbing that they will likely stick with you long after the film has ended. In addition, the film’s constant darkness is utterly oppressive. Not merely the darkness in the story (of which there’s plenty), but the darkness in every single frame of this film. Shadows and blackness encroach in every scene. Even the daylight sequences are grim. The sun never seems to shine in Sinister’s world, which keeps things more than a little unnerving throughout.
Credit for the film’s success must not only go to the director and screenplay, but also to the cast. Making a return visit to our favorite genre is Ethan Hawke (catch the flawed but fun horror-actioner Daybreakers if you haven’t already), giving a fantastic performance as Ellison. For all of his character’s questionable choices (more on those in a tick), Hawke does his best to make those moments fully human and believable and does a damn fine job of (nearly) succeeding. It’s a testament to the actor’s abilities that he’s able to make an occasionally arrogant, at times morally questionable character so damned likable. We may not agree with what he’s doing, or completely understand why he’s doing it, but we always care about the character.
Also fantastic is Juliet Rylance as Ellison’s wife, Tracy, who has what should be the thankless role of “nagging, misunderstanding wife” in a film like this. Thanks to the writing, direction, and her performance, the character comes off as a three-dimensional person and one the audience can’t help but side with during the film’s best scene – a long overdue argument between the spouses. Rylance more than holds her own with Hawke during this scene and should be applauded for it.
The rest of the cast is filled out with solid supporting players, including: Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley as Ellison’s neglected, terrified children; character actor and former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson as a no-nonsense Sheriff; James Ransone as the intermittently smart and Barney Fife-ish Deputy; and Vincent D’Onofrio as Professor Jonas, giving a performance that breathes life into what should’ve been a purely expository character.
Sinister, when it works, also does so due to D.P. Chris Norr’s beautiful, darkness-drenched photography. It must’ve taken some amount of courage to paint the film as black as it is, but the film is all the better and scarier for it. Scary, too, is composer Christopher Young’s frightening musical score. Young’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II album is among my favorite movie soundtracks, and he doesn’t disappoint here with his surprisingly spare yet effective work.
All sounds pretty great so far, right? Well…as much as I adore what the film accomplishes (which is considerable), I cannot help but note its missteps, the biggest, of course, being the massive leap that we, the audience, are asked to take in accepting the various choices Ellison makes throughout the film. One assumes that Derrickson is certainly aware of the criticism. From his Twitter feed, these two recent posts:
Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson)
2/16/13, 2:45 AM
Watching JAWS. If this came out today a gazillion film bloggers would say “It’s good until Quint stupidly burned out the ship’s engine.”
Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson)
2/16/13, 2:47 AM
The Internet is pressuring screenwriters to take the truthful irrationality out of human behavior in films.
He has a point. There have been innumerable instances in the past few years where I’ve noticed critics taking a movie to task for something stupid a character might have done (not allowing for the possibility that the character was meant to be, y’know, stupid, if only for a moment). Thing is, though – that rationalization doesn’t work in Sinister’s defense. It’s easy enough to buy Ellison moving his family into a murder house. It’s understandable that he chooses his career over the option of turning evidence over the police. But to ignore the strange happenings that envelop his new home? To look past the sight of ghostly hands pushing him down through the attic floor during a spectral attack sequence? To discover the existence of a likely supernatural killer, and then see said killer on the grounds of his home… and continue to keep himself and his family in harm’s way? Credulity isn’t merely stretched here; it’s snapped in two.
All this on top of a twist that is telegraphed by the end of the second act. I won’t ruin the film’s ending. Rather, I’ll leave it to the first hour of the film to do that for you. Suffice it to say, though, that the climax’s haunting reveal is watered down by its inevitability.
…and the less said about the strange, unintentionally humorous Carnival of Brats sequence that arrives at the film’s midpoint, the better.
While I’d normally not give a movie with these types of glaring issues a second thought, Sinister stays with me for a few important reasons. The acting and filmmaking, as mentioned. The story is certainly interesting enough, mixing typical haunted house and supernatural killer tropes with the found footage subgenre. The villain is strong enough to make an impression and warrant sequels.
But more so than all of that? The movie is scary, dammit. It takes a lot to shake this viewer, and I admit to being a white-knuckled mess throughout my viewing of this film. There are many who might lob some insults my way for admitting as much, but I do so gladly. It’s rare that I find myself genuinely horrified during “horror” movies these days, and I’m thrilled when it does happen. Mr. Boogie and his home movies ruined my evening, haunted my dreams, and cost me sleep the night I saw Sinister, and for that I thank Mr. Derrickson and company. Sadly, it’s not easy these days to find films more concerned with atmosphere and crafting a good chill than mere tumult and CG-riddled nonsense. By making a back-to-the-basics horror flick with a modern twist, the filmmakers have earned my respect for their effort, flaws be damned.
Speaking of effort – a satisfying amount has gone into bringing Sinister to disc. Summit’s Blu-ray boasts a fantastic picture, with sharp detail and accurate colors throughout (as well as mostly inky blacks throughout the bulk of this constantly dark film). In addition, the DTS 7.1 track is sterling, full of spooky tricks and unsettling effects throughout. Kill the lights and crank the sound when you watch this film, and it’ll be more than easy to imagine yourself trailing alongside Hawke as he journeys throughout this terrifying tale.
Also noteworthy is the disc’s selection of bonus features. We get two audio commentaries: one a more technical minded talk with director Derrickson; the other a writers’ commentary with Derrickson and Cargill. Both are must-listens for anyone interested in screenwriting, filmmaking, or horror films in general. There are also two decent featurettes. The first, True Crime Authors, gives a good overview of the true crime genre and the obsession some of these writers must have in order to pursue the types of tales they write about. Funnily enough, but this featurette goes some way toward justifying some of Ellison’s actions in the film, more so than the film itself manages. The second, Living in a House of Death, takes a look at the Villisca Ax Murder House, the site of a chilling murder of an entire family that could easily have been featured in Sinister.
Next is a set of deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Derrickson and Cargill, which features a character deleted entirely from the film: a next-door neighbor that gives Ellison a bit of background on the family that lived and died in his house. While the scenes ultimately prove to be superfluous to the film’s plot, they feature a superb performance by May’s Angela Bettis and make one wish that Derrickson had left the scenes in place simply to preserve her work. Last up for the bonus features is the film’s theatrical trailer (always appreciated, guys).
Ultimately, while I cannot dismiss the film’s flaws, I can forgive them. I forgive its “zips up the back” and its holes in the motivation. Because its desire to scare is genuine, I’ve decided to meet Sinister halfway. I hope you will, too. If you haven’t already, give Sinister a look. And if you’ve already seen the film – do yourself a favor and check it out on disc, if only for the bonus features.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5
Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!
Starring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman
Directed by B.D. Benedikt
Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision
Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.
Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.
Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.
The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.
Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.
The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.
There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.
“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.
“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
- Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
- The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.
The Crucifixion Review – Should’ve Left This One Nailed to the Cross
Starring Sophie Cookson, Corneliu Ulici, Ada Lupu
Directed by Xavier Gens
Claiming to be inspired by actual events, director Xavier Gens’ The Crucifixion forgoes the affecting shocks and awes, and instead beats its audience into the ground with a laundry-list of ho-hum dialogue and lesser-than-stellar instances…forget the priest, I need a friggin’ Red Bull.
A 2005 case is spotlighted, and it revolves around a psychotically damaged woman of the cloth (nun for all you laymen) who priests believed was inhabited by ol’ Satan himself. With one rogue priest in command who firmly believed that this was the work of something satanic, the nun was subject to a horrific exorcism in which she was chained to a cross and basically left to die, which ultimately resulted in the priest being stripped of his collar and rosary…how tragic. Enter an overzealous New York reporter (Cookson) who is intently focused upon traveling to Romania to get the scoop on the botched undertaking. After her arrival, the only point of view that seems to keep sticking with interviewees is that the man who sat close to the lord killed a helpless, innocent and stricken woman, that is until she meets up with another nun and a village priest – and their claims are of something much more sinister.
From there, the battle between good and evil rages…well, let me rephrase that: it doesn’t exactly “rage” – instead, it simmers but never boils. Unfortunately for those who came looking for some serious Father Karras action will more than likely be disappointed. The performances border on labored with cursory characters, and outside of some beautiful cinematography, this one failed to chew out of its five-point restraints.
I’d normally prattle on and on about this and that, just to keep my word limit at a bit of a stretch, but with this particular presentation, there just isn’t much to bore you all with (see what I just did there). Gens certainly had the right idea when constructing this film according to blueprints…but it’s like one of those pieces of Wal-Mart furniture that when you open the box, all you can find are the instructions that aren’t in your language – wing and a prayer…but we all know what prayers get you, don’t we, Father?
My advice to all who come seeking some hellacious activity – stick to The Exorcist and you’ll never be let down.
The Crucifixion is one of those films that needs the help of the man above in order to raise its faith, but I think he might have been out to lunch when this one came around.
Black Christmas Blu-ray Review – Making Its U.K. Debut From 101 Films
Starring Keir Dullea, Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Art Hindle
Directed by Bob Clark
Distributed by 101 Films
There is only one Bob Clark Christmas movie I watch each year and it doesn’t feature Ralphie and his Red Ryder fantasies.
The endurance of Clark’s 1974 legendary slasher, Black Christmas, can be chalked up to a number of factors but the greatest is this: it is a disturbing film. I frequently come across horror message board topics asking for genuinely scary titles devoid of jump scares and excessive gore, but oddly enough Black Christmas doesn’t get many mentions. Maybe because it has been relegated to the “seasonal viewing only” heap? Regardless, fans will agree that the unsettling events portrayed don’t diminish with repeat viewings; if anything, subsequent watching serves to reinforce that it is a standout among a sea of imitators. The film is also a noted influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – arguably the granddaddy of slasher films – adding a bit of prestige to its legacy.
The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are throwing a holiday party before the Christmas break when, toward the end of the night, they receive a phone call from a man they’ve been calling “The Moaner”, who has a habit of calling and making unusual noises. Jess (Olivia Hussey) initially accepts the call but also allows her other sisters to listen in, prompting outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) to jump on the line and goad this mystery man. She and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) argue over the possibility this guy may be more threatening than anyone realizes. Unbeknownst to the ladies partying downstairs, however, moments before the phone call came through an unidentified person (very likely this same caller) snuck up the side of the house and into the attic. And once the party wraps up that same person is found hiding in Claire’s (Lynne Griffin) closet, whereupon she is strangled and placed in a rocking chair in the attic.
The next day Claire’s father comes to the campus to meet her and is understandably stood up. He heads to the sorority house and reports her missing, at which point the girls and their housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), agree to help him locate her. The file a report with the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), and Jess also wrangles in Claire’s semi-boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), who helps bolster the search by raising hell at the station. Jess, meanwhile, is having problems of her own after confessing to her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she is pregnant. She wants an abortion; he is vehemently against it. Claire’s absence grows more concerning when another missing girl is found dead in a nearby park, prompting the cops to ramp up their efforts. The girls are being picked off one by one as the unseen assailant remains hidden in the attic, continuing his phone calls that come after each murder. The cops suspect Peter may be a person of interest, as his interactions with Jess have become increasingly aggressive, but everyone is in for a shock when a tap on the line reveals the true source of the calls – they are coming from within the house.
With the film having been around for over forty years, and fans having been sold one “upgraded” home video version after the next, I suspect most readers are more interested in how Scream Factory’s Blu-ray stacks up against similar editions – which is basically my way of saying this review is a bit glib. For the uninitiated, however, let me say that I cannot overstate how exceptional Clark’s film is – never giving the killer an identity, an entire subplot concerning abortion, a palpable sense of grief for Claire’s father, a cast of interesting, unique people who don’t ever feel like archetypes, and a potentially downer of an ending. Some of his moviemaking tricks are brilliant, like the decision to create Billy’s voice from a combination of three different people (one a woman) and using interchangeable actors to portray the killer so you’re never quite sure who is in the attic. Carl Zittrer’s score is disorienting and minimal, making use of odd instrumentation to add extra unease; it also appears infrequently, giving the movie more of a real life quality. Black Christmas was a reasonable success upon release, more so commercially than critically, but time has been kind to this old gem and many now view it as an outright horror classic.
Hell, it was Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie.
Cult label 101 Films is giving the film its U.K. debut, presenting a transfer that is nearly identical to the remastered version Scream Factory released last year in North America. That 1.85:1 1080p picture is very likely the best this film can and will ever look. Black Christmas has a long home video history of looking very grainy, murky, dulled, and soft. I can’t say the new disc’s results are far off that mark but there are clear improvements. For one, grain has been resolved in a tighter field that looks less “noisy” and more “grindhouse-y”; do not expect an image clear as a crystal unicorn by any means. There is still softness to many faces and objects though detail looks far better here than it ever has before. Colors are more vibrant, too. Black levels run on the hazy side but they’re more stable than ever. The only noticeable difference between the Scream Factory and 101 Films versions are the latter is a touch brighter, allowing for a little more detail to filter through.
Audio is available via an English LPCM 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo option. The multi-channel effort grants the unsettling soundtrack and Billy’s insane vocalizations more room to breathe, ratcheting up the creepiness thanks to the sense of immersion. Unlike the Scream Factory edition, the original mono track is not included.
Only a handful of extra features have been included, all of which can be found on the Scream Factory edition, too.
“Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle” – Hindle, who still owns that jacket, talks about being a working actor in Canada when there wasn’t much work, as well as how he wound up auditioning for Clark for a different role.
“Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin” – The actress who is most famous for having a plastic bag over her head tells a few tales from the set.
“Black Christmas Legacy” – This is a lot of interviews from the film’s actors and notable fans. I found it to be a bit tedious.
A handful of original TV and radio spots have been included, along with the “40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014”.
The package also includes a fold-out poster, reversible cover art, and a DVD copy.
- Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
- Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
- Black Christmas Legacy
- Original TV and Radio spots
- 40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014
This is an easy recommendation for purchase if you live in the U.K., since this is the film’s Blu-ray debut. Stateside readers may find this region-free version attractive due to the price, but know that it does contain significantly fewer extras than the in-print Scream Factory release. Either way, fans on both sides of the Atlantic have a version worth buying.
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