Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cinema 2012: Eerie moments don't add up

A lot of scary stuff happens in the dark. But at some point in a movie you got to shine a light on it.

In 2012's "Sinister" by writer/director Scott Derrickson, just about the only thing spotlighted is a blatant jockeying to supplant those aging horror franchises that are in perennial reprise. Are sequels to “Sinister” already in the works? That truly would be a scary prospect.

“Sinister” tells the story of true crime author Ellison (Ethan Hawke), who moves with his wife and two young children into a “crime scene” house for a book he is working on and finds a cache of 8 millimeter home movies and, luckily, a film projector, too. The change of venue is actually the desperate play of a writer who is chasing past success. As the family unpacks we are introduced to Ellison’s wife and kids. Derrickson even gives us that warm and fuzzy trope, the family breakfast scene, complete with food-sparring siblings. But Ellison’s wife and kids are just foils in this narrative, although Juliet Rylance is utterly convincing in the sparse supporting role of wife Tracy. “Sinister” may be best remembered as a stalled Ethan Hawke vehicle rather than a story about a family in danger.

The exposition of the film suffers from its prolonged focus on a static and solitary Ellison. Whereas darkness may be considered a fitting metaphor for the writer’s work process, ideally these scenes would also be scary. But despite infrequent nuggets of shock, the terrible crimes that are at the heart of this mystery are detached stylistically from the action of the film since we see them only as projected images. The repeated showing of these passive murders of drugged victims actually dilutes the initial horror they evoked and eventually debunks the eerie quality of those images.

Ellison is in tune with the things that go bump in the night. And while he may not be a boxer à la Hemingway, this writer is no poltroon. Ellison grabs his Louisville Slugger and investigates. But turn on some lights for heaven’s sake! Derrickson is not scaring us in the dark; perhaps a brightly lit scene might.

One scene that does stand out appears to have been filmed with an I-phone as the sole source of light, a great realistic touch. Kudos to cinematographer Chris Norr for pushing that envelope and following in the trailblazing footsteps of Andrew Laszlo, director of photography on “First Blood,” who 30 years ago filmed the scenes of the Sylvester Stallone character in an abandoned mine using only the light from John Rambo’s improvised torch.

When Ellison finally decides to put family first we wonder about the consequences. But since the film had already turned its back on Ellison’s family – ironically we last see helpless Tracy from behind – the passing uncertainty of their fate is hardly poignant.

The musical score by Nicholas Triarchos, Judgehydrogen, and others is edgy and original except for a couple instances when Derrickson abuses the music as a falling rim shot to punctuate startling action on screen.

Fred Dalton Thompson plays a southern sheriff in this film but sadly he is more believable hawking reverse mortgages on TV than squandering his luscious baritone here.

(For the paragon of the southern sheriff, watch the late James Dickey in “Deliverance.” John Boorman made that movie 40 years ago but the performance by Dickey, who wrote the book and is shown here in the role of Sheriff Bullard, epitomizes to this day the often stereotyped Georgia sheriff.)

“Sinister” would also mine a trite and true source of Hollywood horror, namely, the spooky child who wreaks unholy terror. But this dodge doesn’t work well without some hinting at the motivation for such horror. In “Sinister” it has something to do with a shadowy, evil Pied Piper called Mr. Boogie. But after 110 minutes watching Hawke stumble around a dark house and dull script, viewers deserve more than an abrupt visual tease of the putative mastermind if they are expected to return for a Sinister 2.

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