Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Sinister Menace

Sinister (2012) could easily join the ranks of movies I consider required viewing for the Halloween season, as it has all the proper elements: an obsessed, driven author attempting to connect a string of gruesome murders for a proposed true-crime novel; an abundance of unsettling imagery; an eerie soundtrack; and a creepy, memorable supernatural menace.

Ethan Hawke plays best-selling crime author Ellison Oswalt, who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants had been hanged from a tree in the backyard — a crime still unsolved — in hopes of using the murders as the subject of a new book. Shortly after moving in, he finds in the house's attic a box of 8mm film reels, which initially appear to be only a collection of old home movies. However, upon viewing them, he discovers that the films depict a numbers of families being killed in various horrifying ways, by party or parties unknown. With the assistance of an enthusiastic young sheriff's deputy, whom he calls "Deputy So-and-So" (James Ransone), he discovers that these murders took place over a number of years — dating back to the 1960s — and that one child from each murdered family had gone missing. Furthermore, each family had at some point lived in the same house as the previous victims.

On the inside lid of the box containing the film reels, Oswalt finds drawings rendered in a childish hand that clearly illustrate the murders, all appearing to be overseen by a figure labeled "Mr. Boogie." And once he re-examines the films, he discovers that there is indeed a sinister, pale-faced character lurking at the scene of each murder. Also left behind at the murder scenes is an odd, stylized symbol, painted in blood. Hoping to determine the meaning of the symbol, he contacts occult expert Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio), who concludes the murders are ritualistic, the ubiquitous symbol implicating an obscure, ancient Sumerian deity named Bughuul, who was known for "eating the souls" of children.

As he delves deeper into this mystery, Oswalt's wife Tracy (Juliette Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) become increasingly distraught by his obsession and beg him to take them back to their previous home. He stubbornly refuses — until the entity Bughuul physically manifests itself to him. Realizing now that he may have drawn his own family into an unimaginable, supernatural horror, he relents, burns all the film reels, and retreats with his wife and children to their old home.

However, just when it seems life might return to normal, Oswalt discovers in his attic a new box of film reels and an envelope labeled "extended cut endings." It is only now that the horror truly begins....
# # #

Sinister succeeds largely due to its dark atmosphere, relatively slow reveal of the supernatural menace (Vincent D'Onofrio's character does not appear until about midway through the picture), and genuinely chilling imagery. While the various murders might be brutal, some shown in graphic detail, there is yet a sense of suggested rather than gratuitous violence. Best of all, the entity Bughuul — a.k.a. "Mr. Boogie" — remains ever mysterious, usually glimpsed quickly or, in the case of lingering close-ups, with features half-hidden by shadows. The fictional backstory of Bughuul being a Sumerian deity, who lured children to his domain so he could eat their souls, brings a distinctly supernatural presence to a narrative structured, at least in the beginning, more like a true-crime drama.

Screenwriters Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson fabricated an appealing origin for Bughuul, only partially revealed in the film, portraying him as the brother of the Canaanite god Moloch, to whom children were also sacrificed. Bughuul uses drawn symbols or images — in this case the children's artwork — as gateways from its dimension to ours, always leaving behind its rune-like symbol at the scene of its predations.

As is the tendency for most contemporary horror movies, a few unnecessary jump scares mar the suspense, but overall, the film employs nighttime settings, suggestive shadows, and the eerie musical score by prolific composer Christopher Young to unsettling effect. One of the best uses of music is a repetitive, synthesized grinding sound, simulating the sound of movie projector spindles turning after the film has run out, overlaid with distorted children's voices.

The character story is reasonably engaging, with Ethan Hawke convincing as a skeptical but dedicated investigator who slowly becomes aware that his research subject is anything but prosaic. Some critics have argued that his actions aren't logical, that a real human being wouldn't continue to delve more deeply into the realm he's discovered once its actual dangers become clear. I would disagree, particularly being a sometimes obsessive-compulsive writer-type individual. Author Oswalt, shown early on as pragmatic but driven to recapture the success of his earlier novel, becomes ensnared by images and sensations he experiences but doesn't dare believe. He clings stubbornly to reason, to the little voice that says, "no matter what you think you see, it simply can't be that, the world doesn't work that way." I think many of us are wired the same way, particularly those of us who are agnostic or atheistic, and might likely react perhaps just as "recklessly."

Oswalt's wife Tracy serves mostly as a prop, neither her personality nor her actions doing much to propel the story, though she does come across as "real," reacting to and influencing her husband's decisions based on her all-too-accurate intuition about the events overtaking them. Their son Trevor suffers chronic night horrors (an affliction I also suffered to some limited extent in my younger days), but he, too, is a two-dimensional character, and unfortunately more annoying than sympathetic. However, their daughter Ashley, a budding young artist with an engaging personality, well-portrayed by Clare Foley, plays a more critical role than is initially evident, bringing both pathos and chilling horror to the climax.

Actor/Senator Fred Dalton Thompson has a small, entertaining role as the local sheriff, but his deputy plays a much bigger part in the story, becoming both assistant and confidant to Oswalt during his investigation, though the author amusingly refers to him only as "Deputy So-and-So."

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Sinister's grim atmosphere, slow but deliberate pacing, and chilling imagery make it one of those rare movies involving the supernatural that actually has the power to disturb. The climax possesses a certain dark beauty, directed like a dance, with music playing a crucial part of its composition, leaving me with a genuine haunted feeling. As I mentioned early on, the film makes for excellent Halloween fare, and I suspect it will be appear frequently on my regular autumn film menu.

Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.

The brutal murder that begins the chain of events for writer Ellison Oswalt
Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is horrified by the images revealed in what he took to be old home movies.
A frame blow-up from one of the film reels reveals the face of "Mr. Boogie."
The sign of Bughuul, painted in blood, left behind at the site of each of the murders

No comments: