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
American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Starring Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo
Directed by Colin Bemis
Recently I wrote up an article here on Dread Central which was basically an open letter to anyone who was listening called “I Miss Found Footage.” Well, it seems like someone WAS listening, as I was then sent the link to an all-new found footage film called Strawberry Flavored Plastic from first-time writer-director Colin Bemis.
The film follows the “still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” Basically, you could think of the flick as American Psycho meets Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep. That, or you could think of it as “Man Bites Dog in color!” However you choose to label Colin Bemis’ psychological thriller, just make sure you check out the film once it hits in the future.
As I alluded to above, the film is basically a found footage version of American Psycho. But that said, the film sports a twist on the charming serial killer subgenre that I have yet to see play out in any of the above-mentioned classics. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but I will say that the film introduces an element to the tale that spins it into much more of a character drama than a straight horror film. Not that there is anything wrong with that!
Truth be told, the film’s turn from serial killer flick into a layered character study might have been its kiss of death, but this slight genre switch is rendered a minor issue as the film’s central narcissistic antagonist is played by Aidan Bristow. Bristow is an actor you may not have heard of before this review, but you will hear his name more and more over the years to come, I promise. The guy gives (no pun intended) a killer performance as the film’s resident serial killer Noel Rose, and time after time surprised me with how chilling, charming, or downright vulnerable he chose to play any given scene.
Bristow’s performance is, in the end, the major element the film has going for it. But that said, as a fan of found footage, I was smiling ear to ear at first-time director Colin Bemis’ understanding of what makes a found footage suspense sequence work.
In Strawberry Flavored Plastic director Colin Bemis is confident and content to allow full emotional scenes to play out with the camera directed at nothing more than a character’s knees. Why is this so important? Because it keeps the reality of the film going. Too many found footage directors would focus on the actors’ faces during such emotional scenes – no matter how contrived the camera angle was. In this film, however, Bemis favors the reality that says, “If you were really in this emotional state and holding a camera, you would let it drop to your side.” I agree, and it is small touches like that which make the film feel authentic and thus – once the shite hits the fan – all the scarier.
On the dull side of the kitchen knife, the film does feel a bit long even given it’s short running time, and there doesn’t seem too much in the way of visceral horror to be found within. Again, graphic blood and gore aren’t a must in a fright flick, but a tad more of the old ultra-violence would have gone a long way in selling our main psychopath’s insanity and unpredictability. But all the same, the film does feature a rather shocking sequence where our main baddie performs a brutal home invasion/murder that puts this film firmly in the realm of horror. In fact, the particular POV home invasion scene I’m talking about holds about as much horror as you’ll ever wish to witness.
In the end, Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a must-see for fans of found footage and serial killer studies such as American Pyscho, Creep, and Man Bites Dog. I recommend giving it a watch once it premieres. If only to be able to point to Aidan Bristow in the near future and tell all your friends that you watched (one of) his first movies.
Lead actor Aidan Bristow turns in a star-making performance in Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a found footage film that plays out like Man Bites Dog in Color before introducing a new element to the charming-serial-killer subgenre and becoming more character study than a straight horror. Think American Psycho meets Creep.
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
We’ve all heard the old saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, I’m here to tell you that’s only partially true. It seems there is a third certainty that had been omitted from the original quote, “It is certain, if you enjoy a movie, at some point someone will remake that movie.” Now is the time when one of my favorite movies gets reimagined, “for an American audience”.
In the late 2000’s an explosion of “French extreme” horror films was released. Martyrs and or High Tension can often be found on any number of lists of the “most fucked up horror movies ever”. Unfortunately, the vastly superior Inside is often forgotten (as well as Frontier(s), but that’s a whole ‘nother rant). Now, ten years after it’s initial release, Inside has been Americanized. Don’t worry, we watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true? It’s the Who Goes There Podcast episode 148!
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Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View
Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as
17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?
What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.
Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?
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