UPSTAIRS TO EVIL
Sinister The Hangover Part III
(MA15+) ★★★★✩ National release
I(MA15+) ★★★✩✩ HAVE some advice for American couples with young families who may be thinking of moving to a new house. First, check the place wasn’t the scene of a gruesome murder. Second, make sure the power bills have been paid and all the light switches are working. And finally, if the house has an attic, as it surely will, on no account venture into it at night, even if strange noises can be heard in the ceiling.
In the best Hollywood haunted house movies these rules are invariably broken, usually to good effect. But some people never learn. You’d think newlyweds would be more careful after The Amityville Horror, that seminal 1979 thriller, allegedly based on real events. But no. Patrick Wilson was determined to explore that creepy attic in James Wan’s Insidious, and soon ghostly apparitions were popping up everywhere.
And look what happened to that nice couple in Paranormal Activity, when the guy sets up his video camera in the bedroom at night and all manner of nasty doings are recorded. Made on a tiny budget in 2009, Paranormal Activity is said to be the most profitable film of all time on a cost-to-earnings ratio, and we’re now waiting for the fifth instalment.
Meanwhile we have the crazy-brave Oswalt family in Sinister, a supremely scary supernatural thriller from director Scott Derrickson. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a writer, keen to move into his new home to start work on a book. Ellison writes about real-life murders; his last success was called Kentucky Blood and he’s desperate to produce another bestseller. His wife, Tracy (Juliette Rylance), accustomed to his writer’s tantrums, happily joins him in the move. After all, they’ve bought the new house at a bargain price (you wonder why), and it’s big enough for their two children, Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario). When the local sheriff meets them on the day of the move, dropping not-so-subtle hints that the Oswalts would do better to live somewhere else, Ellison takes no notice.
But certain things about the house seem puzzling. In the garden Ellison notices a tree with a heavy branch partially sawn through and touching the ground. (There’s a ghastly explanation for this, revealed in a prologue.) Exploring the attic — as we knew he would — Ellison discovers a box containing spools of 8mm film, bearing titles such as Sleepy Time and Pool Party, apparently a collection of home movies left by the previous owner. Also on hand is an 8mm projector. Ellison improvises a screen pinned to a wall, chooses a spool at random and settles down to watch.
The images are blurred and unsteady — as the best home movies always are — but we appear to be seeing a series of grisly killings: a family drowned in their pool, another burned alive, that awful business with the tree.
Transferring the film to his computer, Ellison is able to enlarge and manipulate the images, much as David Hemmings did (all those years ago) in Blow-Up. Is that a shadowy masked figure he can see in the background? With the help of a friendly deputy sheriff (James Ransone), Ellison discovers the details of various multiple murders — committed at different times in different cities — that seem to correspond to the crimes on the film. They go back more than 30 years. Could the murderer be an old man or were multiple killers involved? In each case, a young girl of the family has disappeared, apparently abducted by the killer. Where are these children now? This could be the book of the year.
Derrickson established his horror credentials with The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005, and he’s well practised in the tricks of the trade, especially the use of sound and a preference for distancing long shots over closeups. He wrote the screenplay of Sinister with C. Robert Cargill, and it works with chilling effectiveness: its silences, its fleeting shapes, its sudden noises all beautifully timed.
Hawke, playing the half-crazed obsessive, is almost as unsettling as some of those ghouls and bogeymen. It goes without saying that nearly all of it is filmed in semi-darkness, and the debt to Paranormal Activity is plain enough. But I kept thinking of the Nicolas Cage character in Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, who examines a spool of home movie film found in a dead man’s drawer and uncovers a nasty secret.
What is it about 8mm film that somehow makes it spooky: the flickering picture, the suggestion of time past? I doubt if Sinister would be quite as scary if Ellison had discovered a box of videotapes or images on someone’s camera-phone.
All reservations aside, Sinister ranks as a minor masterpiece of its kind. Before the advent of VCRs, its distributors would have released it in magnetically striped 8mm sound prints for home viewing, much as films are released now on DVD. Would Sinister have looked even scarier that way: an 8mm film within an 8mm film? I wonder. THE Hangover Part III returns us to Las Vegas, where the first instalment began with a wild night at Caesar’s Palace, that temple to American greed and vulgarity. You’ll remember in that first film a bunch of all-American guys booze themselves insensible at a bucks’ party and wake up next morning with no memories of the night before. The same gang (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis) are back for Part III, said to be last of the series, and directed again by Todd Phillips. It’s as crass, raunchy and offensive as ever.
The humour this time rests on several simple propositions (and, like the filmmakers, I make no apology for political incorrectness in listing them). One: fat guys are funny. Two: fat women are funny, especially when flirting with fat guys. Three: fat guys are funnier when they’re stupid, or a bit slow, or when they’re suffering from a mental illness and refuse to take their medication. Four: foul language and sexist and racist jokes are funny, provided they’re delivered with a casual nonchalance. And, I hate to say it, animal suffering is funny. In Part III a giraffe is decapitated on a busy freeway and a chicken smothered under a pillow, its last gasps observed closely.
So why do we laugh? Why did I laugh? Because it’s done with such gusto and irreverence, because the screenplay is genuinely witty, and no one (thank goodness) takes anything seriously. The fat guys are Alan (Galifianakis) and a Vegas gangster named Marshall (John Goodman). The funny Asian guy is Mr Chow (Ken Jeong), a bisexual drugaddict and criminal who has made off with a stack of gold bars belonging to Marshall.
The surreal humour can be savoured in an early scene when Alan, after a row with his father (Jeffrey Tambor), settles on a sofa with blaring headphones over his ears, unaware that his dad, out of focus behind him, is suffering a fatal heart attack on the floor.
Spectacular action sequences and cliffhanging stunts are neatly blended with the comicstrip violence and coarse repartee, and it all looks fetching on the big screen. No more Hangovers? In Vegas, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt in