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Sinister (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Sinister (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley

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.

Special Features

  • Audio commentary with director Scott Derrickson
  • Audio commentary with writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
  • “Living in a House of Death” featurette
  • “True Crime Authors” featurette
  • Deleted scenes with optional audio commentary with director Scott Derrickson

    Film:

    3 1/2 out of 5

    Special Features:

    4 out of 5

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    Through the Cracks – Trick or Treat (1986) Review

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    Starring Marc Price, Tony Fields, Lisa Orgolini, Glen Morgan, Gene Simmons, and Ozzy Osbourne

    Directed by Charles Martin Smith


    I have been a horror fan for more than half of my life at this point. Meaning I have seen most of the quality horror offerings under the sun. But that said, every once in awhile a classic sneaks past so we wanted to create this “Through the Cracks” review section for such films.

    Case in point, I had never seen the Halloween horror flick Trick or Treat until last night. I know, right? How the hell did that happen? But these things do happen and so for everyone that has seen the flick a million times, this will be a review of the movie from a super horror fan that – at the age of 33 – is seeing Trick or Treat for the very first time.

    Now let’s get to it.

    First off you have to love the movie’s plot. Mixing horror and heavy metal seems like a given, yet preciously few films Frankenstein these two great tastes together.

    Like many of you out there, I am a big metal fan as well as a big horror fan. The two seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Jason and horny campers.

    I dig bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and even those hair metal bands (Dokken forever!) and I’m well aware of the legends surrounding playing these records backward.

    Off the top of my head, the only other flick that combines the two to this degree is the (relatively) recent horror-comedy Deathgasm. I say more horror-metal flicks! Or should we call it Metal-Horror? Yeah, that’s a much more metal title.

    It only makes sense that someone, somewhere would take the idea of “What if Ozzy Osbourne really was evil and came back from the dead (you know, if he had passed away during his heyday) to torment a loner fan?” Great premise for a movie!

    And Trick or Treat delivers on the promise of this premise in spades. Sammi Curr is an epic hybrid of the best of the best metal frontmen and his resurrection via speaker is one of the great horror birthing scenes I have seen in all my years.

    Add to that the film feels like a lost entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. More specifically the film feels like it would fit snugly in between two of my favorite entries in that series, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master.

    This movie is 80’s as all f*ck and I loved every minute of it.

    And speaking of how this film brought other minor classics to the forefront of my brain, let’s talk about the film’s central villain, Sammi Curr. This guy looks like he could share an epic horror band with the likes of Mary Lou from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and the Drill Killer rocker from Slumber Party Massacre Part II.

    Picture that band for a moment and tell me they aren’t currently playing the most epic set in Hell as we speak. I say let’s see an Avengers-style series of films based on these minor horror icons sharing the stage and touring the country’s high school proms!

    In the end Trick or Treat has more than it’s fair share of issues. Sammi Curr doesn’t enter the film until much too late and is dispatched way too easily. Water? Really? That’s it?

    That said, the film is still a blast as director Charles Martin Smith keeps the movie rocking like an 80’s music video with highlights being Sammi’s rock show massacre at the prom and his final assault on our hero teens in the family bathroom.

    Rockstar lighting for days.

    Even though the film has issues (zero blood, a rushed ending) none of that mattered much to this horror hound as the film was filled to the brim with striking horror/metal imagery and a killer soundtrack via Fastway and composer Christopher Young.

    Plus you’ve got to love the cameos by Gene Simmons (boy, his character just dropped right out of the movie, huh?) and Ozzy Osbourne as a mad-as-hell Preacher that isn’t going to take any more of this devil music. P.S. Watch for the post-credits tag.

    More than a few of my closest horror buddies have this film placed high on their annual Halloween must-watch lists. And after (finally) viewing the film for myself, I think I just may have to add the film to mine as well. Preferably on VHS.

    Trick or Treat is an 80’s horror classic. If you dig films like Popcornand if you put the film off like I did, remedy that tonight and slap a copy in the old VHS/DVD player.

    Just don’t play it backward… God knows what could happen.

    All said and done, I enjoyed the hell out of my first viewing of Trick or Treat. But what do YOU think of the film? Make sure to hit us up and let us know below or on social media!

    Now bring on Trick or Treat 2: The Prom Band from Hell, featuring Sammi Curr, Mary Lou Maloney, and Atanas Ilitch’s Driller Killer from Slumber Party Massacre Part II!

    • Trick or Treat (1986) 3.5
    3.5

    Summary

    Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat is a sure-fire Halloween treat for fans of 80’s horror flicks, as well as fans of heavy metal music.

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    User Rating 3.62 (21 votes)
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    AHS: Cult Review – Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters

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    Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill

    Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk


    ** NO SPOILERS **

    It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.

    Spoiler free.

    To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.

    That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.

    Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.

    Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.

    Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.

    Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.

    But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.

    But let’s backtrack a bit here.

    Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).

    And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.

    Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.

    With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.

    Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.

    I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.

    Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!

    Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.

    Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?

    On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.

    That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.

    In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.

    While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.

    Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.

    Bring on season 12.

    • American Horror Story: Cult (2018)
    3.5

    Summary

    The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.

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    User Rating 4.14 (22 votes)
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    The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror

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    Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro

    Directed by Nicholas Woods


    The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).

    The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.

    The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.

    The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.

    The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.

    The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.

    ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:

    • Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
    • Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
    • If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
    • “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
    • The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
    • As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
    • “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
    • The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
    • Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
    • The Axiom
    4.0

    Summary

    In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.

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    User Rating 3.95 (20 votes)
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