Sometimes I don’t want to write 1000 words on one movie, so I’m going to start a new series of posts called Rapid Rambles where I’ll rattle off about a couple movies just to get my thoughts on intangible internet paper. Since it’s October it’s time for spooky movies. Now, because my friends and I are nerds we’ve been having horror movie dates every weekend for a few weeks now, but now that Halloween season is officially upon us it’s time to ramp up the scares and dive head first into the macabre. Today, I’ll be babbling about a movie I really liked, and a movie I really didn’t.
Sinister is a paranormal horror film released by Blumhouse Productions. Now, I know the horror aficionados among you are immediately skipping this section and scrolling down to read about The Witch, but hear me out. Sinister has received tons of mixed reviews, with some hailing it as a modern classic and others calling it a hack piece. In my humble opinion, it sits awkwardly in the middle. I can’t recall the last horror movie that had some of the best and some of the worst sequences I’ve seen in it.
The premise is pretty good: Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer, and his family have moved into a house where another family was murdered and finds some super 8 films in the attic. When he watches them, he finds out they are homemade snuff films made by the family’s killer. As he connects the dots between all of the filmed murders he begins witnessing strange, spooky things. So, what about this film is so good? The murder film reels our main character finds are legitimately chilling. The authentic gritty look, choppy editing, and surreal music all come together to make the grizzly murders depicted on screen even more disturbing. I can’t not mention the opening shot of Sinister: a 8mm film of a family being hung to death from a tree in slow motion. Yeah, what a way to kick it off. As the movie goes on, the directing and cinematography is great when it comes to showing our main character’s deteriorating mental state as he’s tormented by
Mick Thomson Buhguul. You can really feel Oswalt’s lack of sleep and increasing paranoia as he tumbles down the paranormal rabbit hole.
So what doesn’t work? Well, for a movie that’s almost two hours long it feels super rushed, especially at the end. It seems to just zoom along in the last ten minutes of the movie, relying more on direct exposition and “look at this, isn’t this just soooooooo spooky and dark?” type imagery rather than actually tying up the narrative. And while I did enjoy how bleak the ending was, I feel like an extra ten or fifteen minutes used to help raise the stakes and connect us to the characters was needed to give the ending more weight. I didn’t care enough about Ethan Hawke’s character at all, so when shit got real I wasn’t invested enough to feel scared or worried for their fates. I know that a lot of horror movies stumble in their final act, and that’s okay, but I feel like Sinister shows an obliviousness to the craft that I haven’t experienced before.
The jump scares in Sinister were all pretty by the books and predictable. There were a lot less than I expected going in to the movie, but a vast majority of them are unfortunately just scary faces popping out on the screen with excruciatingly loud musical stings accompanying them. The movie really lost points with me at the very end, because the last shot of the movie is a cheap jump scare just to get the audience one last time before the credits roll. Not only is it just an unwarranted and unwanted jump scare, I’m petty sure it’s exactly the same spooky face animation used earlier in the film, just mirrored so it comes into frame from the other side of the screen. Talk about lazy film making. Maybe I’m just salty and have been spoiled by really good horror flicks recently, but that final scare kind of ruined an okay movie for me.
Overall, Sinister was pretty mediocre. Again, it’s got some of the coolest sequences in a horror movie I’ve seen, but the mile-a-minute ending and borderline abuse of jump scares will lead me to forget the rest of the movie in a month’s time. If I had to pay anymore than my monthly Netflix subscription fee I would skip on it, and even then, I doubt I’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.
The Witch (2016)
Turning one hundred and eighty degrees from Sinister, The Witch follows an estranged family of hyper-religious colonial farmers in the 1630s who lose their newborn son to a witch in the nearby woods. With each member of this already unstable family on edge after the tragedy, The Witch follows their collective descent into madness and chaos. This film is not for everyone. You don’t grab some friends, some beers, and throw on The Witch to see young, attractive, barely clothed girls get chased and murdered by a guy in a mask. After the set up, The Witch moves at an almost glacial pace. All the dialogue is written and spoken in old English. It’s dreadful.
But it’s fantastic. When I say dreadful, I mean The Witch literally inspires dread in it’s audience. The muted colours, the constant, looming forest (played by Ontario’s own Algonquin Park!) in the background of every exterior scene, and the long drawn out shots draped in darkness all contribute to an uncomfortable and tense experience. The cinematography in The Witch is beautiful to say the least. This is doubly impressive considering this is director Robert Egger’s directing debut. Eggers has a fair bit of experience with production design, so maybe his eye for interesting visuals has developed from there.
The events that unfold throughout the film do their fair share of heavy lifting when it comes to building up the horror, too. The Witch follows the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin, as she begins her journey into adulthood. Her younger brother, Caleb, is ogling and fantasizing about her. Her mother resents her because she thinks Thomasin is practicing witchcraft. Thomasin is slowly learning that the oppressive Christian regime her parents have raised her in isn’t the be all and end of the world. Her world is slowly unraveling, and everything she’s believed in for her entire life might not be right. Voila, horror. You don’t need splattering viscera or spooky faces jumping out at you to make a good horror flick.
The Witch also offers some deeper substance after thinking more on it. This could possibly be the Enemy of horror films, with the more fantastical elements of the movie happening in our main character’s psyche, being a warped and twisted version of the truth told to the audience. The most horrific sequences in the film (Caleb’s possession, breastfeeding, and final scenes come to mind) fit in the context of an actual witch tormenting the family, but they could also just be Thomasin trying to rationalize the terrible things she witnesses as Satan’s work. Caleb’s possession could just have be a severe illness or disease he picked up after being lost alone in the forest for some time. If Thomasin had never witnessed somebody die violently of a horrible, crippling illness, I’d bet she would think they were possessed by the devil.
So, verdict on The Witch. It’s got no jump scares, minimal gore, but it’s still scary as hell. Old school scary. The setting and cinematography is fresh and exciting compared to all the dime a dozen horror flicks we’ve been getting recently. This isn’t the pinnacle of modern horror, but it’s unapologetic in how starkly different it is from everything else I’ve seen. I want to stress again that The Witch is a movie that you need to be in the right mindset and environment to properly enjoy. Make sure you’re prepared to embark on this doom laden journey before you hit play.