We all live in Stephen King’s house. I mean, all of us who hope to write the scary stuff. Case in point: Sinister. Is there any way to move a writer into a new house and not conjure Jack Torrance? And, going back a touch farther—as King, I assume (going by Danse Macabre) would do himself—what’s Jack Torrance if not a more dangerous Eleanor, from The Haunting of Hill House? I mean, what you’ve got is somebody made vulnerable by their character flaws and/or past, and you’re plugging them into some haunting where that can be used against them, with other people very much at stake.
That pretty much works as a synopsis for Sinister, which is meant to be Insidious’ cousin, and have Paranormal Activity bleedover as well, and, maybe more important, some crossover star-power: Ethan Hawke, troping around in the attic of the haunted house, maybe his first horror outing ever, not counting Daybreakers (or’s he got some horror? IMDb’s so far away . . .). And it’s got all the conventions we expect and love and keep paying for: kids who see the ghosts; ghosts who flit through the background but are never there when the character’s actually looking; a lingering ‘crime’; some Samara-type visuals; ‘haunted’ media, which we know and love, starting about with The Omen but of course cycling through horror with pretty terrifying regularity; authorities who aren’t much help; scary drawings on the walls; and on and on.
None of which is in any way bad, please understand. This is what horror makes itself from time and time again.
And Sinister even covers some ground towards undercutting Eddie Murphy’s once-upon-a-time objection about how white people should just leave the house when stuff starts getting weird: Ethan Hawke’s character is banking his whole career on this next book.
Or, to be more specific and spoiler-y [beware them]: he’s banking his whole career on writing this next book in a house he knows to be Dreamhouse, to be Silent House (very etc), to be just as haunted as that place in Connecticut. Pretty much, he’s—going down the King road yet again—John Cusack’s novelist in 1408, just temping the ghosties.
And, yes, as it turns out, they have a very low temptation threshold. Which, this I really appreciate. Too much horror lately tries to be The Sixth Sense, trying to build up tension to really sell that jump-scare forty-five minutes in. Which is great when it works, sure. For my money, though, I’ll take the Sinister way: that box of NOT TO BE WATCHED HOME MOVIES that Ethan Hawke needs to stumble upon in order for the movie to move forward? Instead of being behind six trapdoors and locked under an ancient text it takes four people to decode, they’re just right there, dude. The only box in the attic.
Welcome home, sir. I know you’ll like it here.
Forever (← spooky font, please).
As for the antecedents for Sinister, I see some similar look and style with Insidious, sure, especially the attic, and of course it’s drawing on a long tradition of movies covering the same subject—Darkness, Orphanage, Amityville (the remake), on and on, the well is forever deep—and it’s got a Blair Witch 2 feel to it as well, but I’m going to have to go to fiction, really: this crosswiring of home movies with serial killage, it’s pure Dollarhyde. And these little ghost kids running around, if they’re not Orson Scott Card’s “Lost Boys,” (I only know the story, not the novel), then they might just have to be the dead kids in Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat.”
All of which speaks well for Sinister, yes.
But, the big question: does it scare you?
Me, anyway. And keeping in mind that, say, that episode of Magnum PI with the suggestion of a ghost, it always makes me move from the chair to the couch, so I can have my back to the wall: I scare easily. Paranormal Activity is still the first image I flash on every night when I happen to wake up at the wrong time. And if it’s anywhere near three, then of course I’m all Emily Rose, Emily Rose, and there’s exclamation points and question marks just floating around everywhere. Turning off the lights downstairs, I should get a medal for it, what with all the backflips and ninja moves and flat-out diving. Going to bed, it’s a complicated process, and often leaves me winded, needing a glass of water, except it’s all the way downstairs . . .
So, yeah, I’d guess that some of that imagery from Sinister’s been more sticky than it seems right now, and’s just waiting to ambush me tonight. Still, though, it’s the ‘cautionary’ part of the story where the scare needs to lie: when the story makes me suspect that I could be victim to these events, that’s when I start getting very nervous. That’s why The Excorcist was so terrifying. I could just be hanging out in bed one night, and, bam, suddenly I’m inhabited by demons. Not because I played with some steampunk rubik’s cube and not because I took the grate off the chimney to hell. Just because I happened to be there, then.
Sinister, though, for me it’s only scary if A) I’m currently moving into a new and creaky house, B) I happen to find a box of old movies oddly placed in my path, or C) I’m a true-crime writer for whom ‘research’ means moving into my subjects’ old massacre house.
And, trick is, none of those really apply, finally.
But, yes, that triangle-eyed dude, he rocks, definitely. Love his look. And I’ve got the hair, could so be him for Halloween here. Except I think that’d be asking for the real triangle-eyed dude to come knocking. So, yeah, somewhere, somehow, Sinister’s worked on me. And, in spite of the car-commercial last tenth of a second, which really only serves to neuter everything that came before.
Still, it was a very worthwhile viewing. A few minutes into it, I scratched down the premise for what I think is going to be a pretty cool horror story. It’s got more to do with Joe Hill’s “Twentieth Century” ghosts than Sinister, but still, if it wasn’t for Sinister I wouldn’t have been thinking of that story, and the necessary circuit wouldn’t have sparked shut.
Anyway, I’m supposed to hit a screener of Paranormal Activity 4 next week. Surely it’ll have some good juice. So long as I can completely pretend Paranormal Activity 3 never happened. Too, though, I’m still and always holding my breath for the rollercoaster horror that’s my real taste: Drag Me To Hell, Trick ’r Treat. Anything with ‘slasher’ as a fitting subtitle, or a werewolf on the poster. But I’ve got my Cabin in the Woods DVD I can watch again and again. And Mama’s coming up in early 2013, and’s got a promising look to it, and people keep telling me Attack the Block, Attack the Block, and I suspect American Horror Story’s either already going again, or soon to be, so there’s plenty of good viewing to be had for this best of all months.
And of course I’ll be cueing up Scream and Halloween, as always. I mean, that goes for about any season, really. But especially this one.