Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.

Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.

Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.

The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).

So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.

At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.

The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5!

Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

September 6, 2010 in Book Reviews

Janet Malcolm’s famous intro to The Journalist and the Murderer goes like this:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

And that’s just the first few lines of her short book, originally published in 1990.

The Journalist and the Murderer tells the story of Dr Jeffrey MacDonald, a philandering, narcissistic man accused of killing his wife and two young daughters on 17 February 1970.  In June 1979, a couple of months before he was convicted, MacDonald commissioned journalist Joe McGinnis to write a book about him, hoping that the book will convince the world of his innocence.  The two struck a deal to split the profits, and McGinnis was entitled to write whatever he wanted, “provided the essential integrity” of MacDonald’s life story is maintained.

And so McGinnis officially became a member of MacDonald’s trial team and the two became extremely close friends, or so it appeared on the surface.  McGinnis had access to all of MacDonald’s materials.  In addition, MacDonald sent McGinnis tapes of recorded material, and the two frequently traded letters.  MacDonald believed his buddy was going to write a book that will help exonerate him.

Instead, when Fatal Vision was published in 1983, McGinnis painted MacDonald as a cold, remorseless psychopath that, in his opinion, undoubtedly massacred his family in a drug-fuelled rage.  MacDonald, devastated and angry (though still serving his sentence), commenced proceedings against McGinnis for fraud.  Amazingly, although the trial ended with a hung jury, five of the six jurors had sided with MacDonald, the convicted killer.  Eventually, the two settled out of court for $325,000.

Damn, I just told you the whole story, didn’t I?  Don’t worry, it actually helps to know the story when reading this book, which goes far deeper than just the story on the surface.

The Journalist and the Murderer is a fascinating book, the type of non-fiction that sucks you in and can be finished off in one afternoon sitting.  Having just started doing some journalistic work for my writing course, I found the themes to be particularly gripping — is it okay for a journalist to lie, or lead their subject on, just so they could gather the “truth”?  Is there a line that should not be crossed?  And did Joe McGinnis cross that line?

The book has compiled a number of key interviews with those close to the MacDonald-McGinnis trial, and it was remarkable to see the different stances that the two sides took, especially on the question of whether they thought MacDonald was in fact guilty of the crimes he was convicted for.

The book also contained various letters exchanged between MacDonald and McGinnis that really demonstrates the level of deceit that was occuring, and that MacDonald had absolutely no idea what was coming.

Of course, the fact that Janet Malcolm is also writing this critic of journalism as a journalist adds an additional layer of contemplation and complexity to this book.  In savaging McGinnis of his methods in gathering information, she is only too aware of the methods she is employing herself to get the most out of her subjects.  And one thing I didn’t know was that Malcolm herself was sued for libel by the main character of one of her books, In the Freud Archives.

I liked Malcolm’s style.  It’s bold and it’s cutting, but there’s also a sense of self-awareness to it.  You don’t have to like it to appreciate it.

Terrific read.

4 out of 5

[PS: this was another one of those books where I read the first few pages for my writing course but found it so interesting that I got the whole thing.]