Friday, February 24, 2017
Sinister (2012) is the kind of horror movie I have a difficult time assessing, and I left a viewing of it deeply conflicted. The first hour or so of this horror film from Scott Derrickson is beyond reproach: serious, grim, legitimately-disturbing, and very original in terms of visual presentation.
But the movie’s last act falls apart, and all the carefully-generated suspense just bleeds out of the proceedings. By the time of the film’s final and lame bump, Sinister has plummeted so far from its apex of terror that you’ll feel deflated and also a little angry. Greatness was within its grasp.
So, do I champion what’s good about Sinister, or criticize the fact that things fall completely apart in the third act?
As is my wont, I’ll pay attention to both factors in this review, but I can’t lie about the bottom line: the weak, discordant ending casts a retroactive pall over a film that might have been in contention for the title of genre classic.
“Your father writes about terrible things.”
In Sinister, a once-famous author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into the home where a terrible crime recently occurred. In the backyard of the Oswalts’ new property, a family was hanged by an unseen assailant. One child survived the hanging, but has vanished entirely.
While Oswalt’s son, Trevor experiences night terrors on a regular basis and his daughter Ashley begins painting weird murals on the walls, Ellison investigates the hanging in hopes of writing a follow-up best-seller to his literary calling card, Kentucky Blood.
Ellison is unexpectedly assisted in this endeavor by the discovery of a crate in his new home’s attic. Inside the crate are several old 8 mm film reels, all “home movies.” These amateur recordings, however, are filled with horrific murders. Technically, they are snuff films.
One, “Pool Party ‘66,” reveals a family being drowned in a swimming pool. Another, “Barbecue ‘79” shows a different family being burned alive in its car. “Lawn Work ‘86” showcases a family bloodily murdered with a lawnmower, and “Family Hanging Out, ’11,” shows the previous homeowners being hanged.” Sleepy Time ‘98 may be the most disturbing of all, as it showcases a family murdered while asleep, throats slit on-camera.
In one of the films, Pool Party ’66, Ellison catches sight of a strange, demonic-looking figure in the pool. Further examination reveals this being’s presence at each of the crime scenes. Also at each crime scene: some sort of demonic iconography. When Ellison asks a local professor, Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) about the occult symbols, the academician reports they are associated with a pagan God named Bughul…a god who steals children and -- over time -- devours their very souls.
As Ellison becomes more and more obsessed with the dark imagery of the home movies and his own quest for fame, his beleaguered wife (Juliet Rylance) begs him to give up writing, give up the house, and get the family to safety before it is too late…
“This is my shot.”
The greatest horror movies involve some kind of metaphor of sub-text that grants the film additional meaning and depth. Sinister very much concerns what it means to be a writer, and how a writing career -- if not successful -- can actually tear a family apart.
In the film, Ellison doesn’t want to quit writing, even though family finances are grim, and even though his family is in mortal danger. Why? He still remembers the “high” of Kentucky Blood’s release, when he went on TV talk shows, won awards, and was a figure of some national repute. Ellison feels that this current case is now his “shot” to have all that celebrity again. He wants to take that shot, no matter the consequences.
And importantly, he thinks there’s nothing he can’t handle.
As a professional writer since 1996, I very much appreciated this thematic through-line in Sinister. Every author who has struck with writing for any significant span -- and witnessed economic fortunes rise and fall with each project -- will recognize some of the hard yet truthful conversations shared by the husband and wife here. Ellison’s wife urges him to teach or edit to supplement their income, but he doesn’t want those careers. He wants to write, to do things his own way, on his own terms.
In the end, however -- as his wife tells him -- it is Ellison’s family that must sacrifice so he can attempt to achieve his dreams of fame. Not coincidentally, Sinister also features a demon stealing away children’s futures, and that’s the key metaphor or sub-text. That soul-sucking demon who demands almost constant sacrifice is actually the writing career that takes Daddy away, and limits family resources.
These moments of husband/wife frisson in Sinister are powerfully observed and uncomfortable true. Writing is a solitary profession, and one lacking stability and security. A writing career can skyrocket and flame-out in a surprisingly short span. One success can fool you into thinking you’ve made it, but then every successive time up at bat (or in print), you have to make it again, all over again. You’re only as good as your last success.
Ellison is an egotistical man, to be certain, but not a bad man. At night, when not watching the horrific snuff films, he watches old VHS recordings of his TV talk show appearances, and narcissistically revels in his image, his celebrity, and his wit. Fame is like a drug to Ellison, and we see (though his constant whiskey drinking) that he is an addictive personality. For some reason, the approbation of the media feels more real and important to him than his family’s love. He craves it.
Hawke is intelligent and interesting as Ellison, and the actor carries almost the entire movie on his shoulders. The movie, however, lets Hawke down in the last act, when it requires for Ellison to learn from his mistakes and -- with his family at stake -- he doesn’t. Instead, he acts incompetently.
Without revealing too many specifics, Sinister’s last act requires Ellison to ignore important phone calls and voice-mails from a deputy for a long span, and then relapse into behavior that he explicitly has been informed will re-conjure Bughul.
At this point, Ellison has given up writing his book, so there is no rational reason for him to go down this road. It’s not like he does it on a whim either. He sits down and cuts together film footage from every Bughul home movie, a time-consuming activity that would offer any sane person plenty of time to reconsider.
So the Sinister screenplay switches over from clever and closely-observed to cruising on genre auto-pilot…all in time for the catastrophic finale.
And yet by the time of that switch-over auto-pilot, Sinister has also proven itself a profoundly intriguing found-footage-styled horror film. Much of the movie’s set-pieces involve the home movies, shot over various decades, and featuring the horrible murders of whole families.
These videos look authentic and real to an alarming degree, and are absolutely disturbing. The moment in which Elliot first detects Mr. Bughul in one of the films is also a real seat-jumper. Bughul looks horrible and alien and wrong, and yet, at the same time, real. The home movies in the film -- literally found footage -- are unblinking in their commitment to scaring audiences, and to transgressing beyond standard movie decorum.
And then it all goes south. One scene late in the film features a shift-of-perspective that reveals ghostly children all around Ellison, in the murder house. The revelation of their presence -- made manifest with child actors in ghoulish make-up, trying to make “scary” faces -- diffuses the real-life horror of the Bughul movies, and even his inexplicable presence in them.
Then, Ellison behaves irrationally and inexplicably, as I noted above, and fails to safeguard his family.
The coup de grace is the ending. Sinister culminates with one of the worst sequel hooks I’ve ever witnessed. The grotesque Mr. Bughul pops his head into the frame, essentially mugging for the camera.
Until the last act, Sinister is indeed imbued with an air of the, well, sinister. And that balloon is punctured abruptly by the suddenly comical-appearance of Mr. Bughul as a kind of Freddy Krueger-like ringmaster.
At this point, we’re in no mood to laugh, and not easily amused. The ending is egregiously off-tone, and it irreparably damages the film.
Horror movies sometimes end darkly, with a failure to kill the monster, or the death of a protagonist. But the catastrophically unhappy ending in Sinister undercuts Ellison’s very journey as a character. He finally learns that his family is more important to him than his writing, but then still ends up dying. So everything he learned is, essentially, for nothing. And on top of it, Ellison isn’t the only one who dies because of his behavior. His entire family dies, and his daughter gets her eternal soul taken by Mr. Bughul.
Sinister’s ending isn’t only bleak…it’s the bleakest of all conceivable endings. So, given the seriousness of it, why should Mr. Bughul pop up smiling at the end of the movie -- why-so-serious?-style -- like Sinister is some sort of light-hearted genre lark? It isn’t. The movie has showcased extreme violence and horror, aimed right at suburban families. Children drown. Throats are slit. The movie is about the corruption of innocence and the destruction of the hearth and home. This is not light-hearted material in the slightest.
Again, it’s not that I object on principle to movies with dark or downbeat endings. Don’t Look Now (1973) is one of my all-time favorite horror films, for example, and it features an incredibly dark denouement. But Sinister can’t seemingly commit to its overwhelming sense of darkness, and goes for the lame sequel hook and the last minute, jokey appearance of Bughul.
Honestly, I would almost have preferred it if Sinister had been poorly-done, or lacking in conviction all along, because then, at least, the final act wouldn’t serve as such a grievous, tonally-misshapen disappointment.
So Sinister is a horror movie simultaneously good enough to get your hopes up, and bad enough to dash every last one of them.
This was Sinister’s “shot,” to paraphrase Ellison, and the movie blew it!
Thursday, February 23, 2017
We now move from one of the best Logan's Run episodes ("Crypt") to one of the absolute worst.
In "Fear Factor" -- a title that presages a popular reality TV series of the 21st century -- our intrepid heroes Logan (Gregory Harrison), Jessica (Heather Menzies) and REM (Donald Moffat) come across a beautiful estate in the middle of nowhere, and also a strange woman writhing around on the grounds in mortal fear. She seems to be suffering from what REM diagnoses as "mind-numbing trauma."
Logan, REM and Jessica return the woman to the facility. They learn it is a mental hospital where the lead psychologist, Dr. Rowan (Ed Nelson) is a psychopath himself. As the leader of the "Inner Circle," he controls all the inmates (here known as "menials") as well as the doctors at this "convalescent" sanitarium by forcing upon them virtual lobotomies, crushing their "militant" independence with his own thoughts.
Meeting Jessica and diagnosing her as a revolutionary, Dr. Rowan feels she's a natural for the procedure. Logan and REM attempt to intervene, but are dropped into a basement survival track, an obstacle course which includes a wind-tunnel and an area where fireballs are hurled at them. When they survive these trials, Rowan attempts to recruit Logan, but he'll have no part of it.
Finally. Logan teams with another psychologist, Dr. Paulson (The Fantastic Journey's Varian, Jared Martin!) to topple this odd society. He does so not a moment too soon, because Dr. Rowan wants to raise an army of re-programmed individuals...literally, since he has a machine that can accelerate the growth of any human.
At the end of the day, REM -- stating my feelings about this episode perfectly – notes: "I've had enough of this place.”
I don’t blame him a bit.
My problem -- as I've elaborated upon before in my reviews of the series -- is this recurring and absurd notion that some little enclave of society like a lunatic asylum could continue to exist unimpeded after a nuclear war. After hundreds of years. Where does this asylum generate its power? (Remember, there's no power grid). Yet this facility has heat; it has light; it is technologically advanced and it looks exactly like a 20th century asylum...out in the middle of nowhere.
I just find that these kind of stories are unsupported from the standpoint of rationality. Where does this clinic get patients, anyway? From runners who happen out of the City of Domes once in a blue moon? And how are the doctors trained? What medical schools do they attend? Dr. Rowan notes that he has picked Dr. Paulson to succeed him, as though it is a great and prestigious honor. How many apprentices did he have to choose from?
And why would a mental sanitarium have a basement obstacle course that shoots fire-balls and blows heavy wind at patients? Again, this would seem to require a lot of power, and it’s doubtful to me that a pre-holocaust facility would have had this kind of room. There’s also a trap door in a corridor that drops people into the fire/wind tunnel.
In short, there’s just no logical underpinnings for this tale. At the very least, we might ask, who mows the lawn at this place, and with what equipment?
Also, the Star Trek variations are growing old. There was a Logan's Run version of "Charlie X" ("The Innocent"), a Logan's Run version of "The Enemy Within" ("Half Life") and now this is Logan's Run's version of "Dagger of the Mind." In that tale (which, frankly, wasn’t very good), a mad scientist, Dr. Adams (James Gregory) was experimenting on the minds of mental patients. Here Rowan is doing the same thing, though at least he has a motive: world conquest. He wants to build an army.
The most intriguing aspect of the episode is the treatment of the Jessica character. She is characterized by Rowan (and Logan) as a fiery rebel and independent thinker, which sounds more like Agutter’s interpretation of the character, from the 1976 movie. Here, Jessica, who was part of the underground in the City of Domes, notes that “If people think for themselves, it’s a threat to the system.”
To Rowan, this kind of thinking is indeed a threat, and he plans to destroy Jessica’s mind. It’s clear he takes a special delight in destroying her, because she has questioned him. This plot would have more power if we had seen more of Jessica’s “fire” in the actual series. Already we have seen her immediately buy into an illusion of Sanctuary (“The Collectors”), for instance, which doesn't say a lot for her critical thinking.. She has not been written as the powerful rebel that the character originated as, which makes the story-line in “Fear Factor” surprising, but welcome.
Looking across the Logan’s Run catalog, one can see how several stories all fit the same thesis, of advanced and complex states that should be helping people be better, but don’t help to do that at all. Instead, they only subjugate or enslave people. We’ve seen the computer installation of “Man out of Time,” an empty and baffling relic of another age, the bunker for psychic research (“The Innocent”), the machine in “Half-Life” and now the asylum in “Fear Factor.” Many of these tales display a distrust of facilities/installations that are designed explicitly to aid and heal. This is perfectly in keeping with early 1970's dystopian cinema, which often involved failed states, and failed state apparatus.
But what doesn’t make sense -- in all these tales -- is that these facilities keep operating independently centuries after the holocaust, still receiving power, personnel, and with technology still functioning.
Next week, a better episode: “The Judas Goat”
Set in “the not too distant future,” The Last Child (1971) is a TV-movie concerning overpopulation, and, specifically, the ways that the U.S. Government might respond to such a crisis.
Overpopulation surfaced as a major issue of the 1970s science fiction cinema, in films such as Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (1972) and Logan’s Run (1976), in part because of Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist and bestselling text, The Population Bomb (1968), which predicted whole populations starving into the 1970s and 1980s, and recommended draconian procedures to resolve the issue.
The Last Child doesn’t boast the imagination or budget of a Logan’s Run or Z.P.G., but it is an exciting and highly disturbing TV-movie about a dark future. It resolves, finally, into action tropes -- with a car chase, no less -- but remains engaging and provocative nonetheless.
In The Last Child, it is against the law for American families to conceive more than one child. If a family’s child dies after more ten days, this law remains in effect, and a second child cannot be conceived legally.
By the same token, anyone sixty-five or over may not be treated with any medicine that would cure a disease. Instead, senior citizens can get pain medication for their suffering, and that’s it.
In response to these new laws the U.S. has developed a powerful legal agency: The Population Control Enforcement Section.
Agents in this section can arrest and incarcerate women pregnant with second children. They can also induce abortion in women who are less than six months pregnant.
Those fetuses with more than six months of development are allowed to be carried to term, and then executed after birth. Doctors who perform the procedure insist that this “disposal” of babies is done with “kindness,” and “quickly…with efficiency.”
As the film begins, a couple -- Allan (Michael Cole) and Karen Miller (Jane Margolin) -- secretly get pregnant with a second child. Their first child died after 15 days, and they still want desperately to be parents. Unfortunately, an agent for Population Control Enforcement, Barstow (Ed Asner), arrests Karen at a grocery store and she is incarcerated, pending delivery and disposal of the baby.
Karen’s brother, Howard (Harry Guardino), however, works in the government and is able to get her released quickly, so long as she agrees to relinquish the baby on delivery. Karen and Allan agree with these terms, but only to get Karen released from custody. Afterwards, the Millers flee New York on a train after stealing a ticket, and head for Massachusetts.
Barstow pursues the couple, but the Millers receive unexpected help in the person of retired senator, Quincy George (Van Heflin), who gives the pregnant couple sanctuary in his house.
Barstow attempts to arrest them, but Quincy won’t allow it. Barstow strikes back by refusing to allow the elderly senator, a diabetic, to receive his insulin shots. Technically, they are against the law at his age (72).
Howard attempts to bring Karen and Allan back to New York, but ends up assisting them escape Barstow. Together, Howard and the Millers flee for the Canadian border…
“In this day and age, not every human being has the right to live...”
The Last Child is a scary “what if” story that -- because it was made pre-Roe v. Wade -- is often held up as an example of a vehemently pro-life film.
This is a bit of a stretch.
Abortions do occur (and are state-sponsored) in the frightening totalitarian world of the film, but, of course, in real life, Roe v. Wade didn’t cause the government to go around aborting babies without a mother’s permission.
And, I guess, the film also drew some attention in 2011, as “death panels” entered the national discourse, since The Last Child also imagines a world in which the elderly are denied medication that would treat their conditions. Again, we know now that the whole “death panels” discussion was hyperbolic fake news, designed to build resistance to the Affordable Care Act. No grandmothers or grandfathers have been harmed (or denied medicine) through participation in Obamacare.
The Last Child is still scary, however, for a few significant reasons, even if not as “predictive” of the future as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe.
First, the way that the physician discusses “disposal” of a living baby with the Millers is dehumanizing and awful. He isn’t talking about a medically-necessary procedure, after all, but one which conforms with a government policy. His assessment is that not all people, in this future, have the right to live.
That is a monstrous philosophy, in and of itself, but it is even more monstrous in terms of how the law is applied.
Late in the film, for instance, Barstow wants to negotiate with Senator George about his insulin. The officer is willing to overlook the law, and make certain that George gets his medicine, so long as he gets custody of the Millers.
The question, of course, is why is a rich and powerful (white) man above the law? But a young couple, with no power, are not?
Why can Barstow look the other way regarding the Senator’s medical infraction, but not look the other way for the Millers?
Laws like this wouldn’t work, hopefully, because they are inhuman, but also because -- as The Last Child suggests -- they would likely be applied unevenly, and unfairly.
The Last Child is also scary because it imagines a totalitarian world in which everyone’s legal and parental history is recorded on a national identity card. Police and population enforcement agents can access private information through the card.
And worse, the card is also a credit card, suitable for making payments with. This means that the government can “freeze” your access (and your accounts) if it discovers you have broken the law regarding two children. This is a really terrifying invasion of privacy, and the film does a good job of exploring just how difficult it is to hide or defy a technologically-advanced totalitarian state.
Alas, The Last Child falters in some key areas.
First, what has occurred in the world that has led the United States to take such a hardline approach in this “future”? This made-for-TV movie doesn’t give the law any kind of context, except to note that it exists.
What made the representatives of the people push for such a harsh law in the first place?
It’s vital to know that information, otherwise the laws as pictured here just some totally arbitrary and vicious. Even bad laws have a context behind them (think: Prohibition). The movie leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle by failing to explain how this “future” world got to this point.
There must have been some event, or incident, that led the United States to take such drastic steps. Without telling us what that was, The Last Child is just, in some senses, kowtowing to feelings of paranoia.
Secondly, all the action in The Last Child devolves into a car chase near the Canadian border, and that’s disappointing. Too many thoughtful issues have been brought up for the film simply to go into “action” mode. And the death of Asner’s character -- his car careens off a cliff -- is emblematic of the film’s two-dimensional thinking.
Barstow, like him or hate him, is an official law enforcement agent of the United States. Presumably, he is doing his job with the Millers. Yet the movie treats him like a silent movie villain; someone to hate and despise (even though he is obeying, not defying the law).
The Last Child succeeds because of the focus on Karen and Allan, and their dilemma. It puts us in their place.
What would you do, if you wanted to be a parent, but the State forbid it?
I suspect many of us would do actually what the Millers do in this film: defy an unjust law, and make a run for it.
I just wish that the film provided more background detail about its future world, and thus allowed us to understand why such a terrible law could come into place.