Dir. Scott Derrickson
Written by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert “Massawyrm” Cargill
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio
This ghostly flick from the director of HELLRAISER V: INFERNO and one of the reviewers from Ain’t it Cool News may not have the classiest pedigree in the world, but it does have something. It’s hard to describe what that actual something is, but I think it’s in there. Somewhere. When I take it apart and start thinking about the actual content, it seems very stupid and gimmicky, and not even a very good gimmick. But for some reason while I was watching this film, I was mostly into it. I don’t know that I could really call it a good movie, but somewhere, somehow, this one managed to get to me in spite of everything. I mean, there’s only one thing in this whole mess that I couldn’t straight-up predict, and even that was pretty obviously one possible way it could go. And there’s certainly nothing in here that you haven’t seen before, and a lot of it you’ve seen done before much better. But I dunno, man. Somethin’.
Oh wait, I just realized I know exactly what. Ethan Hawke. There’s one and only one reason this unimaginative gloom-fest works, and it’s Ethan Hawke acting his scruffily handsome ass off trying to make us care about the gimmicky found-footage conceit here and succeeding handily. Derrickson and Cargill owe Mr. Hawke a minimum of a hundred blowjobs each for taking this movie up about a dozen notches, but maybe he at least owes them the honor of receiving them for providing him an opportunity to play an interesting, nuanced character in a genre movie that takes itself surprisingly seriously and genuinely wants you to leave horrified, not just scared.
We know Derrickson has the capacity to make shit out of shinola (witness his lifeless and mind-numbing remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) so I’m hesitant to give him too much credit here. But I will say he’s obviously trying, laboring to make something genuinely dark and shocking even if he doesn’t always have the imagination to back it up. He asserts his intent from the very first frame, where we silently watch a super-8 video of a family of four, hung by their necks with bags over their head until the last kick. It’s horrifying and --crucially-- patient, lingering on the images of horror rather than just leaping out at us with them (although he’ll hilariously try the latter approach for the very last frame of the movie). Now, intending to shock is not always the same thing as legitimately shocking us. CHAOS, right? There’s a big difference between conjuring genuinely disturbing psychological unease and X-treme hardcore wannabe nonsense. As much as it grasps for the genuinely depraved, SINISTER is seldom imaginative enough to come up with anything truly upsetting. But fortunately that’s where Hawke takes over and carries the rest of the movie on his back, kicking and screaming, into somewhere in the realm of honest-to-good goodness.
|Well, I guess I do owe [the Robot Devil] for this unholy... ACTING ABILITY!!|
Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, (named after Harlan Ellison and Patton Oswalt, the same way that all those awful horror movies in the 90’s had characters named Carpenter and Romero and Ken Russell and so on) a nice guy with a cute cracker-y family who has fallen on hard times as a writer of true-crime type novels (which come to think about it, Patton Oswalt really ought to try that, I bet he’d be great). Unbeknownst to the family, he’s moved them into the house of the murder victims from the opening hanging scene, convinced it’s the inspiration he needs to write another great book. Unfortunately, his wife’s getting sick of their lives being shaken up so he can pursue his career, the local cops (not entirely unreasonably) think he’s a tabloid-chasing lowlife, he’s running out of money, and wouldn’t you know it, the house is haunted. You know, by ghosts.
The only reason any of this is interesting in the slightest is that Hawke plays Oswalt in a very unique way. He’s fundamentally a nice guy who genuinely loves his wife and kids and wants the best for them. But he’s also somewhat selfishly pursuing his own dreams of recaptured literary glory to the detriment of everyone else, rationalizing his own pride as an attempt to provide a better life for his family. Oswalt’s first book was a hugely acclaimed, influential work which helped bring justice to an unsolved case, but since then he’s become a bit of a hack, “making mistakes,” as the local cops put it, and generally pissing away his good name in a desperate effort to reach the kind of glory that mostly only comes as the result of being in the right place at the right time. So when he finds a mysterious box in the attic which includes gruesome super-8 footage of five murders across more than 50 years, he seriously considers turning it over to the police but can’t quite resist the temptation to be a hero again by solving the mystery himself. Which turns out to be kind of a mistake, if you’ll indulge me a moment of editorializing.
|Yes, yes, you see dead people. Get to the point.|
What works about the performance is that Hawke makes this guy’s desperation genuinely palpable. In fact, the tension comes more from how hard it is to watch Oswalt paint himself into a corner than from our fear of ghostly kids running around. As Oswalt (and the audience) work their way through the films (all of which have cutesy titles which relate to the murders, for instance the hanging family is called “Hangin’ Around ‘11”) you can tell he knows in his heart that this is a bad idea, and in fact bad for him both personally and psychologically... but he can’t stop himself. He wants to believe he can make this work. Even as the evidence that this is a terrible idea piles up, he can’t quite let go of his dream that this will be the thing that puts him back on top. We can’t always identify with the idea of being hunted by an ancient Babylonian demon that looks like if the Joker was a member of Insane Clown Posse (unless we saw EXORCIST PART II, and even then only the first part), but we can all identify with being the guy who just so desperately needs this one thing to work out that he at first ignores, and then rationalizes, and finally tries to live with all the horrible consequences that are piling up at the foot of his aspirations.
The drama works like a charm, but the actual horror stuff can be pretty clunky. There are a whole lot of scenes of Hawke fearfully walking through his darkened house (and never turning on a light) which start off tense but eventually get repetitive, and get even worse when they’re accompanied by a bunch of cheesy looking ghostly kids running around. And the less said about the ultimate reveal of why this is happening, the better. But surprisingly, the central found footage gimmick actually works pretty well. Unlike most found footage clusterfucks these days, I don’t detect any kind of commentary about our society being obsessed with documenting reality or creating meaning through images and so forth. Nor do these found films attempt to “put you in the moment” like way something like V/H/S does -- they’re mostly set in the past, for one thing, and don’t have a lot of that stupid wobbling that most practitioners of this questionable art seem to think is necessary. They’re scary just because they’re showing you something pretty horrible, making you party to whatever sick mind would do these things. It’s silent, deliberate, slow, gruesome (although unfortunately unimaginative), and the grainy super-8 footage and clattering projector remind you that there’s nothing our hero can do, we’re completely helpless to save anyone here. Derrickson actually did some pretty good found footage stuff in his DTV HELLRAISER V as well, so maybe that’s his thing. One rookie error he makes, though, is occasionally putting the film’s (quite good) score over the found footage. Bad call, brother; you can either have fancy Hollywood manipulation tricks or you can have your raw, disturbing found footage. Can’t have both at the same time
|Man, how have they not made a Half Life movie with Hawke as Gordon Freeman?|
Still, there’s some signs that some serious thought was put into this movie. Briefly and bafflingly, Vincent D’Onofrio appears as Professor Exposition on Oswalt’s computer, communicating with him via Skype. I assumed that it was another attempt at the raw video footage thing, but it’s awkward and uncinematic and distracting and I thought it was a bad idea. But then I realized there’s actually a good reason for it -- Oswalt never leaves the house for the whole movie. Never goes to a bar, never gets a haircut, never buys groceries. The house is his prison, and without realizing it the movie’s small scope makes it feel claustrophobic and tense. A trip out into the real world, away from all the ghosty hijinks, would defuse this tension, and I admire Derrickson for realizing that. He should have just thought of a reason for D’Onofrio to make a house call, though, because that shit with the computer is a nonstarter.
Anyway, the combination of a serious tone, a serious actor, and serious ambition (if not always serious imagination) combine for an end result which is, if not seriously good, at least seriously something. There’s a boldness and a commitment to the movie that I respect, and --at least in part-- responded to. When it’s short on ideas, it’s usually got the filmmaking competence to go the distance anyway, and Hawke’s constantly riveting performance takes us the rest of the way there. Easily the better of the two movies about ancient Babylonian demons I saw this Chainsawnukah season, although to be fair this one doesn’t have James Earl Jones wearing a cool locust headdress and sitting on an ornate throne. That may not be saying much, but it’s saying something.
And don't forget to check out Dan P's take in ABBOT AND JASON MEET BEFORE SUNSET.