Let it be said: Sinister boasts a naughty, dejected, little deviant of a title screen, and as an unmitigated proponent of title and credit sequences, this is a great boon to my mental state.
A title screen that is, within the first few seconds of the film, a great surprise to anyone familiar with the work of director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, who is, to be charitable, not a director of great style.
From there, Sinister continues to surprise until right up near the end, not because of a meaningfully sharp narrative or wholly well-realized characters, but because it is a surprisingly well-composed work of filmmaking in a tried-and-true genre that sometimes seems to have gone the way of the bikini-beach teen flick, or the boxer-with-a-soul film: the haunted house genre. A genre which has been back with a fury in recent years (one the few sub-genres genuinely thriving in the 2010s), and, if Sinister isn’t up to the best of the new batch (The Conjuring is not likely to be topped any time soon), it is a nifty one all its own. Continue reading
That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading
Directed and edited for maximum impact, this love-letter to early ’70s haunted house and ghost stories is too good to be true, and its impact is only slightly blunted by it being essentially just the finished version of Wan’s previous film, Insidious, itself only two-thirds of a complete offering. Like Insidious and all those earlier films The Conjuring mostly just studies (I’d love to say re-reads, but that would be unearned here), it emphasizes slow build-up over gore and let’s loose with a filmmaking bag of tricks so deliciously evil it’s hard not to stand up and applaud everything director James Wan does here. Except, we’re too busy being glued to our seat out of pure fear and white-knuckle tension to do anything except try to avert our eyes when we know, like a magnet, Wan is pulling us back. It’s not particularly subversive – there’s something vague going on about the self-destructive cosmic pull of the netherworld on those who peek into it, but it never goes anywhere. As a work of sheer craft, however, it’s almost undeniable.
Director Ti West has become something of a cult sensation in recent years among the horror film-going crowd, beginning with his 2009 genre pastiche The House of the Devil. That film was consummately effective, if less than ethereal or skin-crawling. Nonetheless, it worked, and a film that takes all of its skill and put it out on the screen simply for the purpose of working these days is rare. But with The Innkeepers, West really proves his credentials as a horror filmmaker worth following, emerging out of his shell of repackaging horror to truly creating it.
As with many horror movies that work, The Innkeepers works primarily due to its atmosphere. This is a subdued film that emphasizes the tease over the money shot. It understands that what is implied works more effectively than what is shown. And this isn’t to say that it sacrifices impact for a sort of intellectual focus on the technique of teasing and limiting what audiences see: it is this very technique which allows the film to play well with the lights on in the head and to shoot straight for the bone. This is a slow-moving motion picture where every scene builds on and comes from the previous one. There are moments of humor to break the ever-increasing dread, but dread wins out in the end, as it always does, and as it should. Continue reading