‘Sinister’ and ‘The Silent House (La Casa Muda)’

Picking up the pace. Two movies in one day! Let’s check out the latest theatrical horror release and a foreign flick with a gimmick… a Gimmick Flick!

Sinister poster

Sinister (2012) Directed by . Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Raylance, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario, James Ransone, Fred Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio.

Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime author who hopes to recapture the massive success he had with his first book ten years prior. He relocates to a small town where an unsolved murder took place. Almost an entire family has been hung from a tree; the daughter is missing and presumed dead. But Ellison thinks she might still be alive. The local law enforcement is displeased with Ellison’s presence. The sheriff is particularly bothered by the author’s moving into the murdered family’s home, a fact Ellison hides from his wife and two kids.

While moving in, he finds in the otherwise empty attic a box with a projector and a few reels of Super 8 film strips labeled with innocuous titles such as “BBQ 79” and “pool party 66”. They appear to be standard family home footage, though it is strange that the labels date the footage over several decades. Ellison begins watching the films and, though the strips start innocently enough, each one ends with the murder of a family in their home. Disturbed by what he finds, but positive he’s onto the biggest story of his career, Ellison begins his own investigation into the murders. And when he places his focus on a sinister figure he discovers lurking in the background of some of the images, things take a sinister turn…

Sinister provides a different take on the found footage sub-genre of horror. Instead of building a movie out of the discovered film a standard narrative is created around it. The premise works well and the films Ellison watches are still shocking and disturbing. Viewing the footage through the main charcter has the potential to distance us from the content. However, Ethan Hawke’s performance as he watches the movies helps remove that distance. His reactions reflect what ours would be, or should be, when viewing the footage. He winces, he turns his head in disgust, he drinks whiskey, he even jumps out of his seat during one of the most shocking bits. It’s one of the most effective aspects of the film and helps the audience into the story.

There are a couple of other notable performances as well. I’ve never heard of Juliet Raylance, the British actress who plays Ellison’s wife, but I found her riveting, and not just because of her beauty. In her scenes with Ethan where they argue about his work, she helped madke me forget that the film was using the classic “reconnect with your family or else” conflict. James Ransome as a deputy who’s starstruck by the famous author provides some strange, almost Lynch-like comedic moments. Well, I thought he was funny; the small audience I watched the film with stayed quiet. I didn’t know it until I checked his Wiki page but I’ve seen him before in the great space-Western, The American Astronaut.

Of course strange noises and other such creepy occurrences prompt a bit of the standard “investigating the house at night” trope, but in spite of the nature of the cliche these scenes still had me tense and frightened. There may be one too many jump scares but rarely did they seem cheap and overused. They’re smart and feel like a natural part of the plot instead of tossed in for the sake of the scare.

Unfortunately the last third of Sinister is weaker than the rest. There’s a sequence where things are happening around Ellison that we can see but he can’t and they look silly instead of frightening, although the intense ending of that scene is more successful. The revelation of the killer struck me as forced as though it looked better on paper than how it’s conveyed in the film. I mean, I like the unsettling way it ties the loose ends together but when we finally see who the killer is, the images aren’t as frightening as they should be. To say much more would spoil the ending.

Sinister is still a decent effort with some enjoyable performances and a few good scares. I wish the ending had been more powerful. Ah, I’m probably just too tough of an audience. If you’re looking for a fun Halloween fright, check it out.

La Casa Muda

The Silent House (La Casa Muda) (2010). Directed by Gustavo Hernández Pérez. Starring Florencia Colucci, Gustavo Alonso, Abel Tripaldi.

This is where I realize that I’ve been watching too many haunted house movies lately. Too much time staring at people wandering around in the dark, investigating creepy noises and jumping at jump scares. I didn’t realize that I’m getting a little burned out on it until early into The Silent House.

Laura (Florencia Colucci) and her father Wilson (Gustavo Alonso) arrive at a remote, rundown house they plan to clean and repair the next day. They’re helping out the owner, Nestor (Abel Tripaldi), who is either a family friend or Laura’s uncle, I wasn’t sure which. As they settle in to sleep for the night Laura starts hearing noises. Someone or something has locked them in the house. Frightened, she asks her father to investigate.

You see that picture, just up above, on the movie poster? The one of Laura holding a lantern? That’s the perfect image for the film since that’s most of what you see for at least half of the running time. She wanders around the house, holding the lantern, searching and searching and searching. She hears noises, she gets scared, she hides, she searches some more. That kind of thing can be done well and I enjoy it, but while viewing The Silent House I was conscious of having seen too much of it lately. I wasn’t able to get to that place where I could absorb the film and allow it to frighten me. I blame myself more than the movie, though I suppose if The Silent House transcended genre conventions it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

Instead of being scared by the atmosphere and haunted house tropes I spent a lot of time wondering about the mystery. Who or what is after Laura and her father? Why are there heavy footsteps upstairs… and the sound of a giggling child? At first The Silent House seems to be playing out two kinds of horror films; the house is either haunted by the ghost of a child or there’s a crazed killer who has locked them in. Or maybe the child is a killer? Or the killer is possessed by a child? This puzzling out of what is really going on occupied my mind for most of the film. And while I predicted part of the ending, the entirety of the disturbing revelation took me by surprise.

The ‘all one shot’ gimmick is handled well enough. Early on you’re conscious of the handheld view as the camera passes under a fence or goes through the cab of a pick-up truck. But you forget about the gimmick as the pace picks up. There are a couple of moments where the single shot could have been broken as the screen goes completely black, but by then I didn’t care too much. It was interesting to see how they accomplished it but whether or not The Silent House is actually made of one single shot? I’ll leave that kind of fretting for those who are more anal retentive than I am.

If frightened people wandering around a dark house is your kind of scary movie, check it out. But other than the one continuous shot aspect, it doesn’t add anything new to the horror genre. Honestly, the state of mind I was in made it difficult for me to appreciate The Silent House on its own basic terms.

And so it’s time for me to cut back on haunted house movies. The Possession had a bit of this type of thing… Paranormal Activity 3Sinister… this one… I was thinking The Innkeepers might be next on my list, but I’m going to put it off. It’s time for something a little different…

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