Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Rules of a Horror Movie

Introduction- Sinister (2012) (3/5)

Well, it's October, welcome to horror month.
Never gets old...

So, last weekend, I had a truly unique cinema experience. What was it, you ask? Was it a film that wasn't a reboot of an existing franchise? Was it a film that didn't star Michael Fassbender or Jessica Chastain? No, silly. It was, in fact, even rarer- a horror that actually scared me...but that shouldn't suggest that I was all that impressed.

For the first time since Paranormal Activity (2009), I actually felt the chill of truly creepy cinematic sequence in the confines of a movie theater. Yes, for horror fans, Sinister (2012) may satisfy, but the adherance to formula may also frustrate.         


Sinister is really just more of the same. The plot, characters, and eventualities are almost shamelessly generic. The plot revolves around a true crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke) who is researching a murder case for his latest book. In keeping with the tradition of horror characters having the foresight of 2 year old monkey, he thinks it wise to move his wife and two young children into the house in which the murder takes place without telling them the whole truth. In the new house he finds a box full of film canisters, the super 8 films reveal that the murder at the house is just one of a series of inter-connected murders of various families over the course of 50 years. Ellison must solve the mystery before the mysterious presence in old house gets to him first. Spoookey!

Sound familiar? Yes, it does.
Now, I must confess, Sinister did bring a welcome array of above par thrills, the scares (not to mention the ending) were relentless enough to make the film, at times, a pants-wetting treat. Genuine effort was made to ensure that the visual style of the film (particularly the grainy super 8 footage) was alluring and impressive. Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onfrio, too, were there to add weight.
The problem, then, is not the film itself, but more so that it simply relies on formulas already tirelessly laid out by existing classics. The best films in a genre carve out a pathway for the mediocre ones to follow blindly. In other words, movies like Sinister simply follow the rules that the genre's best have tirelessly set.

So what are the rules?
What makes a great horror movie?


1. The Creepy set-up: Developing Doomed Characters

This is the classic horror set-up and has been true from the genre's beginning. You have to start slow in order to establish your story and anchor your key characters, while also making their surroundings/situation. This is 'quiet time'. These exposition moments allow you to get to know the characters while never losing sight of just how screwed they are.
Murnau opens Nosferatu with almost corny utopian scenes between Hutter and Ellen
Psycho comes across as amoral drama-with Marion asking for trouble..
In The Exorcist the tenderness between Regan and Chris make the creepy early moments all the worse.
Carrie- both a great horror and, early on, a tragic high school movie.
Laurie and her libidinous friends in Halloween- the quintessential
The charming moments of kinship before brutality in Let the Right One In

This is where Sinister both succeeds and fails. The protagonist is painfully dumb (even by horror standards) and quite unlikeable. Yet, the film makes a great job of establishing the notoriety of Ethan Hawke's character and his creepy job. He sits in a dark room viewing his super 8 murder films. It even establishes him as a potential alcoholic which makes us question his status as a reliable narrator...and there is a sinister hick cop! Hillbilly rapist, anyone?!

2. A Mystery to which there is initial skepticism

So you have established your horror characters, next you've got to start messing with them. Creepy/supernatural stuff needs to start happening to them. Of course, in order for the audience to identify with them, they need to react initially the way we would. In other words, they have to be skeptical. In deed, the only way to convince them of the extraordinary nature of their situation is for them to fall victim to it. 

The Exorcist- Chris is almost killed by her daughter before seeking an exorcist.
Jaws- The Mayor cannot be convinced to close the beach...mostly because he is a jerk.
The Blair Witch Project- ominous warnings be damned- they're going into those woods!
Signs- The family's fears are visually confirmed in thew film's best scene.

Here Sinister is very true to form. Convinced of his safety and intellect, Sinister's Ellison continues to probe further into the details of the grizzly murders he is investigating; despite warnings of the occult and the fact that the killer is still on the loose!! Naturally, he begins to get terrorized at night. Dumbass.

3. Turning towards creepy- weird kids and knowing protagonists

One of the first signs in horror genre that things are going awry is when the kids start to get weird. In horror, kids are like animals, they can sense danger and evil. Usually, the children can even communicate with the dead/ become demonic at the turn of a hat. How many times have you seen a horror movie and though "here we go again: another possessed kid." Yup, fear of children is quite an efficient ploy there, Hollywood.
The Village of the Damned- bloody loitering kids.
The Innocents- Try nannying this guy.
The Ring- "But Daddy doesn't know..."
The Orphanage- Tomas- the last playmate your kid will ever have.

Sinister certainly invests in this theory. The film's opening scare is a tremendous moment involving night terrors and blood-curdling screaming from the family's young son. Watch out for the girl, though, she's a doozy.

4. The Scares- Playing on the Unreal
A horror scare must begin with a great set-up. What better set-up than to begin the sequence by pushing the boundaries of reality. When the tennis ball rolls towards Dany in The Shining, only to reveal that there is nobody in the hall but him, we know that something supernatural is happening. Before the scare even comes we are pre-conditioned to be terrified. How about when the television turns on all by itself in the Ringu/ Ring series? Or how the bad guy in a slasher movie is always impervious to bullets and can appear from anywhere. All part of the show, folks!

The Shining-tennis anyone?
Bad reception in Ringu
Paranormal Activity- where was the Golden Globe for that door?

This is where Sinister actually does score major points. The super eight films themselves are like horrible haiku's of suspense, the set up being even better than the pay off. Also, the film makes repeated use of a projector mysteriously turning itself on in the middle of the night.

5. Whores and heroes
Once the scares begin, you must decide who gets it first. Why, the sexy people of corse! In horror it is the overly confident, sexualised characters that die first. To show evil no respect is to fall victim to it. Don't have sex, dont' say "I'll be right back", don't go upstairs, don't go investigate...matter of fact, you might want to consider the elimination of all fun altogether.

This is where skinny dipping gets you in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Never, ever have a sex date in Scream
Death Proof- she won't last long.

Sinister, again, surprises here. But, unlike the last category, the surprise is that nobody dies gratuitously in the opening human/evil exchanges of this film. (SPOILER) Even the self-righteous college professor emerges without a scratch.I guess you could consider the families in the grainy old film canisters the gratuitous victims...

6. The Ending- Ambiguity and the Final Female
Of course, traditionally, there is the last man standing at the end of a horror. In the slasher genre in particular, the sole survivor is an important trait. Of course, the term "last man standing" is an inappropriate misnomer, as the last person standing is usually a woman. The wholesome, innocent, often virginal girl female who goes unvanquished is an eternal reminder of the abitilty of good to triumph over evil.
Geeky Laurie from Halloween
Ripley the leader in Alien

Semi-virginal Dana from The Cabin in the Woods

The ending of Sinister is nothing like this. In fact, it is so gleefully dark that I consider it to be one of the films great strengths. The film as a whole is boldly dark, and knows that going to extremes is the only way to make a mid-range horror script surprise people anymore. And, so, whilst Sinister is no masterpiece, it does get a pass from me, if only for its many stark, film-redeeming moments.

Speaking of stark, here is one last rule of horror- 7. Leave them with a bang! Pessimistic twist ending, anyone??
A Nightmare on Elm Street

Maybe I'll return to this subject again some day!
Thanks for reading.

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