The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
When Lily (Analeigh Tipton) transfers to scenic Seven Oaks three strange but charismatic young women approach her like a girl gang in matching sweater sets. Although Lily doesn't need help with her wardrobe or men Violet (Greta Gerwig) Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) recruit her to live with them hang out with them and join them in their efforts to thwart the school's "atmosphere of male barbarism." It's not actually barbaric; it's a fairly normal upper class liberal arts college but to these girls one of whom has such delicate nostrils that she freaks out at the slightest hint of BO we'd be much better off returning to an classier era. Seven Oaks which used to be a women-only campus is a veiled reference to the Seven Sisters colleges some of which like Vassar have gone coed.
With Violet as a slightly awkward ringleader the trio has very strict ideas of what's proper and what's not what kind of behaviors lead to depression and general uncleanliness and what will most enhance each person's happiness. They set out to do this by avoiding handsome men and going for fixer-uppers and offering depressed students tap dancing classes and fresh-smelling soap. However even though Violet's biggest dream is to kick off "an international dance craze " something she assumes will benefit many people on a wider scale than their college-level suicide interventions they all seem sort of depressed. Is it anthropological curiosity that motivates Lily the loneliness of a new school or as with the audience the sort of weird charm shot through sadness that Violet possesses?
Fans of Whit Stillman's talky thinky upper crust movies are overjoyed that the writer/director has returned after 14 years but what will about newbies? Damsels in Distress is somewhat perplexing; there are a few too many characters and subplots that are introduced and then dropped like the young woman whom the gals take in briefly after a suicide attempt. The film brings up questions about identity the ways we lie to ourselves but leaves them dangling. We're given details about who Violet really is in an insightful and startling subplot that could have given the movie a slightly weightier tone but then it shifts back into Stillman territory. To be fair that's why we're watching in Damsels to begin with; the random excursions into the outside world of actual mental illness heartbreak and financial or personal struggle have no real place in Stillman's lovely bubble. In the end it's not clear if there's some greater thrust to the movie some sort of lesson that the protagonists and viewer should be taking away from it all but if we're allowed to turn off our brains for mindless action fodder and enjoy it why not do the same for hyper-literate modern dandies in a world of dance classes and sunny college campuses?
It's also buoyed by a strong cast led by Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton with enjoyable performances by Echikunwoke and would-be suitor Adam Brody as well as excellent costumes that combine the modern look of liberal arts colleges with the perfectly preppy wardrobe of the three girls and occasional dance numbers. Small touches like Audrey Plaza as a wild-eyed and -haired tap dance student referred to as "Depressed Debbie " Gerwig's stoic face even when referring to her breakdown as being "in a tailspin " and a sight gag here and there serve to remind us that Stillman and his team aren't fumbling in the dark here; they're perfectly aware of how enjoyably goofy Damsels is. It's no accident that their college offers a class called "The Dandy Tradition in Literature" that focuses its studies on Evelyn Waugh and others as obsessed with the leisure class as Stillman.