‘Sinister’ Infringes on ‘The Shining’ Territory
I believe there comes a time in every little girl’s life when they start craving to be scared. Perhaps this is only for girls with a strong father-figure, knowing they’ll always be projected. I’d never felt this inclination. Of course, I’ve never been a girl, either. I remember this phase hitting my younger sister and her begging our dad to rent a copy of The Shining on VHS. I was only vaguely around when she and her friend stayed up late to watch it. My only memory of that viewing was my father fast-forwarding the scene of a decomposing naked woman, lest I grow up to have a leper fetish. It must’ve helped. I’ve never been turned on by that scene.
In the many years since that half-aware viewing, I’ve come to respect The Shining as the ultimate horror film. It’s very easily the greatest haunted house movie ever made. I know I’m not alone in this opinion. It’s an easy one to share when one of the masters of the medium tackles a genre overrun by musical stabs and bloodletting. Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King’s story and didn’t make a movie designed to scare its audience. He made a horrifying film.
I’ve been thinking about that masterpiece a lot lately. What with having recently visited Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights and the upcoming documentary Room 237 receiving more and more exposure. I’ve seen The Shining a number of times now and its blu-ray sits proudly on my shelf. I have numerous Kubrick books and poured over analyses of the film and still struggle with interpreting much of it on my own. It’s obviously a film that invites a number of viewpoints, allowing a film like Room 237 to exist. Lord knows what my pre-teen sister and her friend could possibly have thought of it a couple of decades ago.
Though I don’t feel I have a complete grasp on that film and probably never will, I’m firm in the belief that it’s the best “horror” film I’ve ever seen. It’s a genre that’s eluded me for most of my life. I’d been far too afraid to scare myself purposely with movies. I slept with the light on until I was at least close to high school age. In my defense, I read Deion Sanders slept with the light on, so this move was completely justifiable to me at the time. Once I allowed myself to gaze upon movies designed to frighten me, I found them to be severely lacking. There were boobs, blood and musical stabs a-plenty. Hokey-ness was the order of the day, even if unintended. These were films designed to bring high-schoolers together on a Friday night. I’m glad texting didn’t exist back then. Little screens lighting up the theater have a tendency draw one out of the experience. I’ve been searching to find a horror film I enjoy as much as the best of another genre. I enjoy the Paranormal Activity series’ effectiveness. I love the tension and all out surprise waiting in store in The Descent. I admire the moral justice doled out in blood and body parts in the Saw franchise. However, it’s easy to see how The Shining rises above them all. I’d never been able to find a companion in quality until I saw Sinister.
‘Sinister’ Compares Favorably To Kubrick’s Horror Masterpiece
I’m more than aware of the boldness of such a statement. Expectations instantly rise into the unattainable. I didn’t really want to put it that way, but it had to be done. Especially when the content of the films can be compared so readily.
Just last week, I read a tweet stating the job of a critic is to expose the films that need exposure. At the time of this writing, Sinister has made close to $40 million. Its production budget as reported by BoxOfficeMojo was a mere $3 million. It’s hardly a movie you may think requires exposure, but it does. I almost didn’t see it. A barely-fresh 62% score on Rotten Tomatoes was steering me in the opposite direction. Don’t listen it. This film is masterful.
Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author holding onto his last bastion of hope in attempt to recreate the success of his bestselling “Kentucky Blood,” a number of years (and books) ago. He moves his family to a town where his reputation for digging up dirt and throwing it on the potential incompetence of the local police department earns him a move-in day visit from the sheriff. Ellison’s family is a reluctant pawn in his game of chasing the latest shattered community, but even they don’t know the harm’s way he’s he placed them in. He’s moved into the house where the family he’s writing about was murdered.
That sounds like any generic set up to a haunted house tale, but you can also draw parallels to Kubrick’s film. A writer moves his family to a new home in order to complete a book. That home happens to have been host to bouts of murder. And you can bet the man of the house is driven slightly mad as a result.
Where Sinister diverts from your typical horror fare is in its presentation. Ellison Oswalt appears to be living in a thriller revolving around the true crimes he’s happened upon. A fateful and convenient box of 8mm home videos and their projector await him in his new attic and he’s given some starting points from which to work in uncovering his localized crime scene. When a link appears between them, it’s obvious he could be getting the kind of material that would lead to him back to the mountaintop of success.
Director (and co-writer), Scott Derrickson, makes the most visually appealing and technically brilliant horror film this side of Kubrick you could ever hope to expect. And again, it’s due to the tone of the film. I believe he treats the story as a thriller with some horrifying aspects. A movie that values story over scary. There’s a standout sequence in which Ellison searches around the dark house for the source of his terror wielding a baseball bat (I was about to point this out as another The Shining parallel until I realized Jack Torrance was armed with an ax. The bat was in “The Shinning,” a “Simpsons” parody). He falls asleep on the couch, framed by the barren instrument of the previous occupants’ deaths (a tree) and only awakens under the burning light of a new day. It’s a bravura set piece in a film littered with them.
The directorial flair Derrickson provides is matched by the performances he gets from Hawke and Juliet Rylance, Ellison’s wife, Tracy. The acting chops normally demanded by “a scary movie” are significantly south of Brando, which is why this film almost elevates itself above its own genre. If it weren’t for the things that go bump in the night, you’d think you were watching a film befitting a different mood altogether. Hawke and Rylance have a necessary tete-a-tete that could have been lifted from suburban dramas American Beauty or Ordinary People.
These are a few of the things that make you understand you’re watching something other than a conventional horror film. I had hoped this fact would not be lost on the viewing public accompanying me at the showing I attended. I was not ashamed of humankind. Wave after wave of groups of either gender emerged from the theater relaying the same opinion: Sinister was the scariest movie they’d ever seen.
If I’ve failed to convey how frightening the movie is, I apologize. Make no mistake that just because I feel the film transcends its own genre doesn’t mean it’s not very much a horror film. It isn’t immune to a few jump scares and those friendly musical stabs alerting you to something terrifying taking place, but plenty of them were rooted firmly in story and are thus excusable. The haunting image of the prevailing villainous façade driving Ellison’s nightmares ensured I would feel the same when trying to fall asleep just hours later.
I should say that Sinister is not The Shining. That should be obvious just from the title differences. Sinister is far more straight-forward and comprehensible than Kubrick’s epic of terror. The scope is also far more intimate in the Oswalt’s new family home, as opposed to the open expansion of the Overlook Hotel. It is not like The Shining. They are two very different movies. However, Sinister is the best horror film I’ve seen since The Shining, making it the best fright film in a generation and reason to put them in the same sentence.