After digesting the ghastly Sinister, I’ve come to the realization that in most horror films, the real monsters are mentally stunted characters and workaholic parents. Sure, there’s a demented demon in play, but the demon is merely a function of an inept person trying their hand at raising a child or failing to logically decipher the mind-boggling events around them. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) proudly represents this rare breed of human. A former best-selling author, Ellison moves his family in to a house that was once a gruesome crime scene. Ellison, looking to revitalize his “true crime” novelist reputation, intends to investigate the grisly murders from the inside out. As is the case with most horror films, Ellison is in over his head when he discovers a collection of Super 8 films in his attic. Caught within the worn frames of the films are nauseating snuff segments, with each one depicting the voyeuristic demise of a family. Strewn across a few decades, the unknown murders arrest Ellison in a grotesque fashion. Oddly enough, we as an audience succumb to the same monstrosities. Making great use of the Super 8 look, each film uses shocking, suffocating deaths over excessive gore (i.e. an ingenious, but disturbing hanging of a family is one of the highlights). Because of this, the films are almost hypnotic in their moral vacancy, especially when coupled with a disturbing score.
As Ellison draws mounting evidence for his new book, spooky happenings increase feverishly in his family’s new home. And before we know it, we have full on dead kid and demon action occurring in the Oswalt household. Adding an ounce of credibility to the proceedings is Ethan Hawke who, despite his character’s constant ineptitude, gives a compelling performance that keeps us on board with the destabilizing mindset of his character. Despite Hawke’s effort and the intermittent chills, Sinister is a film that constantly falls short. From the meek scares to an ending that feels more like a plateau than a terrifying descent, Sinister fails to capitalize on its devilish images and frightening, foreign sounds. Making matters worse is the film’s spectral antagonist, who looks like a character that’s better suited for a comedy that’s satirizing the horror genre. If we can’t take the monster seriously, then the potency of a disembodied sound is minimal. Don’t get me wrong, Sinister isn’t a disaster. It has some impressive moments and a few shocking jolts, but the terror is over-matched by a character that should know better and an entity that should stay in the shadows.
Sound of My Voice (3.25/5)
Independent films are the perfect source for challenging material. The only problem with independent filmmakers is that they get too cute with their films. More specifically, they confuse plot gaps and the lack of an ending with discourse driving ambiguity. It’s infuriating to watch a film that you know is going to evolve into nothing but an undeserved fade to black. Enter in Sound of My Voice, a film, written and directed by Zal Batmanglij, that follows a couple of inspiring documentary filmmakers, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), looking to infiltrate an evasive cult. The subject of Peter and Lorna’s desire is Maggie (indie darling Brit Marling, who also serves as co-writer), a woman who is slowly amassing a cult in the basement of a Los Angeles home. Maggie’s legend bears science fiction’s fruit. As she tells it, she hails from 2054 and traveled back in time to prepare individuals for a war-torn future. Donning a white night-gown and an impenetrable conviction, Maggie subjects her cult to increasingly traumatic psychological exercises, one of which includes a self-induced purge of food and emotional restraints. With each character heaving on a collection of garbage bags, we get a quick glimpse at the incessant need for humans to belong at any cost. Maggie, like most cult leaders, knows how to penetrate her follower’s vulnerabilities, and Peter and Lorna intend to expose her for the fraud that they assume she is. Or is she?
The vagueness of Maggie’s intentions is both a concern and an alluring asset, as she continuously seduces her devout apostles with her gospel. As Maggie, Brit Marling is impressive. Magnetic, frightening, and strangely sincere, Marling makes Maggie a believable shrine to the people who lack a solidifying force in their lives. Without Marling in this enigmatic role, the film would be a complete waste of time. Despite Marling’s impressive performance, which hopefully leads to her presence in more films, Sound of My Voice seems more concerned about igniting annoyance in the viewer than it does inflaming discourse about faith and cult based cynicism. Each minute we’re under Maggie’s roof, we’re given more ambiguous plot points than we are insight about the inner workings of a cult and its leader. The aforementioned purge scene is one of the few invasive moments within the film. It all leads to a limp dick ending that lacks a punch, simply because the film makes no effort to provide the audience with any form of evidence to draw a conclusion one way or another. Even when the script sets up a few tantalizing moments, greatness never comes to fruition. Instead, what we’re left with is a frustrating, well-acted film that doesn’t initiate exploration; it only brings us to a dead-end.