MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Sinister 2; Sinister

SINISTER 2 (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ciaran Foy, 2015

Sinister 2, one of the creepier horror movies I’ve seen recently, is an attempt to make an even more sinister sequel to the 2012 horror-sleeper Sinister. (See below.) That earlier Sinister was a found-footage horror show that scared some audiences and grossed some dough back in 2012, and also inspired a lukewarm, semi-horrified response from, as Orson Welles was wont to say, your obedient servant. (See below.) But this new Sinister is, like many mediocre and derivative gorefests so unengagingly gory and so unentertainingly sicko that it seems extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see a “Sinister 3.” For which we should all be grateful.

Returning from the earlier film is James Sansone as the unnamed small town deputy, referred to in the credits as Deputy So and So. So and So, in the last movie, discovered the source of all this sinister creepiness, lost his job and is now scouring the mean streets of small town Illinois as a private eye. He discovers that, as with most movie sequels, everything is happening all over again.

Horrors! Evil ghost children, under the influence of actor Nick King as the vile predatory monster Bughuul (an H. P. Lovecraft sort of name, if ever I‘ve heard one), are prowling from house to house, setting up film festivals for the living children there, showing fuzzy old snuff movies on an antique projector (16mm probably), in which they kill their parents in various awful ways. They are apparently trying to brainwash the living children into likewise becoming homicidal maniacs and amateur moviemakers. Hawke, as Ellison, battled these young fiends and their hideous mentor, to no avail.

Now, with Ethan Hawke out of the way, Deputy So and So has taken his place, trying to protect an abused wife and mother (Shanynn Sossamon as Courtney Collins), with vulnerable nine-year-old twins named Dylan (Michael Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), all of them pursued by her rich, vicious and abusive husband Chris (Lea Coco). They all prowl around and occasionally watch movies where the subjects are being horribly murdered. Eventually, people get killed or find another movie.

The photography is dingy. The script, which isn’t any good, was written by Sinister’s director-co-writer Scott Derrickson with co-writer C, Robert Cargill, and it was directed, dispiritedly, by Irishman Ciaran Foy (Citadel), who at least had the good taste not to recruit any bloodthirsty leprechauns to play maniacal ushers, brandishing bloody shillelaghs. I can’t honestly recommend the movie to anyone, except perhaps to maniacal fans of the first Sinister, or maybe a bloodthirsty, drunken leprechaun or two, or to various miscreants on the run from the law who want to hide out in the darkened theaters. There’s only one word for this movie, and that’s….So-and-so? Sinister? Don’t they wish.

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SINISTER (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2012

By Michael Wilmington

Sometimes genuinely scary, sometimes genuinely silly, director-co-writer Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is one of the more genuinely frightening uses of horrific found footage they’ve sprung on us recently. How much you enjoy it depends on how much disbelief you can suspend — which may depend on how many contemporary horror movies, especially the Blair Witch and Paranormal knockoffs, are on your regular movie-going diet.

Derrickson tries to make the found footage — the supposedly amateur films the filmmakers show us — more effective this time, by mixing them up with supposedly “real life” stuff happening to the guy supposedly watching them. In what passes in Sinister for the real world, a struggling true-crime author named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house where another family not so long ago was massacred , without informing his own loved ones of their new home’s gruesome history or of the other murders (in other places) that preceded it.

Meanwhile, Ellison keeps his most horrific discovery to himself : In the attic he finds scruffy old boxes containing amateur movies of the actual murders, taken, it seems, by the actual killer or killers. They provide, by far, the movie’s most disturbing moments.

Eventually the rest of the family — Juliet Rylance as mom Tracy, and Claire Foley and Michael Hall Daddario as kids Ashley and Trevor — begin to show signs of paranormal wear and tear. The spooks, mostly dead and obnoxious children, play hide and seek and jump-behind-a-door with Ellison as he wanders around the place, and, as the dour local sheriff, played by Fred Dalton Thompson (perhaps contemplating another presidential bid), shows up and acts surly. Thompson’s deputy, played by James Sansone, is contrastingly helpful to Ellison, probably since he’s eager to get an acknowledgement in the eventual book Oswalt will write, if he survives.

These supposed home snuff movies, which the filmmakers have created for Sinister are ultra-creepy and ragged-looking. The real life scenes are creepy stylized horror stuff. And the professional reality makes the amateur “reality” movies look spookier. (Creepy kudos to cinematographer Chris Norr for the way he lights both of them.) Derrickson, who also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the overblown 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, works with Norr to keep everything shadowy and grim and unsettling — never more so than when we see those home movie murders. Especially the one in the tree.

Despite an effective falling-apart acting job by Hawke, you have to swallow a little too much malarkey to completely enjoy this movie. At least I did. Sheriff Thompson, whom I much prefer on old “Law and Order” reruns, probably has the right idea. Get out of town — or stay out of the attic — or don’t climb trees — or leave that found footage in its box, dammit.

 

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Wilmington

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin