“If you were tasked with remaking The Ring, how would you do it?”
I was asking this question at a diner on a Saturday night, and it sparked a ninety minute digression on the now-faded spate of slick J-horror remakes that dominated American horror cinema for awhile, culminating in a four-way conversation about the audacity of remaking Suicide Club for an American audience and just why nobody has attempted it yet.
But the important bit is the bit about remaking The Ring (the Verbinski film and not Ringu). The main thrust of that discussion was “in 2012, what do you do with the videotape?” Is it a YouTube video? Maybe an MPEG file? A 3D Blu-Ray disc? I was the only person to argue for keeping the VHS tape.
I promise you I will start talking about Sinister very soon.
There are two types of victims of the haunted tape in The Ring – those who watch it accidentally (they are tragic and they are the impetus for Rachel to get involved in the first place) and those who watch it intentionally (Rachel, those Rings kids, etc.). It’s not by accident that the viewer follows the latter most closely – voluntary damnation is much more interesting to watch and it parallels the audience experience, making them fully a proxy of the protagonist by having chosen to watch this movie that they know might terrify them, making them a little more wary of that tape.
I’d keep that VHS tape around because if your hero is going to be damned, it’s better to make them work for it. It’s better to make them choose it.
That was at the front of my mind when I watched Sinister, especially in the moments when Scott Derrickson chooses to fetishize the Super 8 projector, the film reels, the editing hardware. Ethan Hawke’s writer Ellison fumbles a bit with the projector, needs to find instructions on how to operate the thing. He puts real effort into seeing what’s on those reels and once he knows the grisly truth of it, he doesn’t stop until, by the time he walks away, it’s already too late.
There’s little in Sinister that is new or shocking – in fact, each of the big twists is pretty predictable – but Derrickson, as he’s previously shown with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is adept at identifying a subgenre’s major beats and playing them to the hilt with the relentless plod of a slasher killer. Sinister is slow to come to a full, rolling boil, but it never backs off of the pressure it exerts on the viewer, slowly making the film less and less comfortable to watch until, eventually, it relaxes its grasp on you only to immediately throttle you that much harder in the final minutes. Yes, you probably knew that it was going to happen and maybe even saw elements of it coming, but you’re still likely to sit with your hand covering your mouth as the credits start to roll. It’s a film that’s shockingly light on gore but heavy on atmosphere and paced with cruel intention.
Like the film it inevitably draws the most comparison to, Insidious, Sinister wears its budget on its sleeve and, in its creepiest moments, seeing practical effects in lieu of the CGI we’ve now become used to can be a distraction for a viewer that isn’t game for the premise. The chemistry between Hawke and Juliet Rylance is barely there (though their blow-up near the film’s climax has a lot of the verve the quieter scenes between the two is sorely lacking. James Ransone’s bumbling deputy and Vincent D’Onofrio’s pompous academic lend some some levity to the film at key moments without ever becoming mawkish comic relief. And yeah, there are a few things that I don’t think are sufficiently explained, but I didn’t dwell on them while the film was playing.
The star of Sinister, though, is Hawke’s obsessive nature as he’s drawn deeper and deeper into the mythology of the film. He becomes drunk, frayed and twitchy over the course of the film and by the time he reaches his nadir, he is practically Gollum-like.
Discounting limited-release fare like The Innkeepers or V/H/S, Sinister is a strong contender for the best cinematic horror film of the year amid an otherwise anemic lineup. It’s your go-to scary movie this Halloween, especially if you’re done with found footage.