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.
By Noah Davis & Kit Bowen
With the release of O, Shakespeare's intense play Othello gets a distinctively modern update, centering around a prep school's black basketball star, Odin, his white girlfriend, Desi, and the jealous teammate Hugo, who wants to break them up. We asked our writers how they thought the movie held up against the play, who did the best acting job of the three leads, and what is their favorite Shakespearean teen movie.
Hollywood.com: Here we are once again, another Shakespeare play getting a teen update. Did the story of Othello work in a modern adaptation?
Kit Bowen: Unfortunately, no. Othello really works best in an adult world rather than a teen-age one. You never truly buy into Odin's all-consuming feelings toward Desi. I mean, honestly, in the story they've only been going out for four months. And the issues at stake in the original Othello deal with war and the fate of a country, not on whether Odin gets a basketball scholarship to a major university. The relevance of O doesn't measure up to the play.
Noah Davis: Making Shakespeare's play Othello, which was written in 1604, appear to be torn from yesterday's headlines is no small achievement. The series of shootings in American high schools, particularly in Colorado's Columbine High, ironically kept O from being released earlier. Had the filmmaking team thrown caution to the wind and released O, say, one week after the Columbine tragedy, the impact would have been stunning, and thus a teen update would have worked better. Shakespeare wrote his play for the masses--the groundlings who could not read, but given the absence of TV and movies held the stage to greater respect than we do today. So those watching O might consider Othello was much more timely to the mass audience of 1604 than it would be to all but a small, elite audience today.
Ultimately, I think the writers failed to convert it realistically to a modern teen outlook.
Hollywood.com: There were two (but perhaps only two) major departures from the original plot. One was to reveal Iago/Hugo's motive, and the other was to make Othello/Odin's race an issue. Was either a mistake, and if both, which was the bigger mistake?
Noah Davis: I think both were mistakes. It makes utterly no sense for the Iago character, Hugo--who, in the climax of the play, as here in the movie, falls into silence when his scheme has been carried out, thus maintaining the unknowability that is his hallmark throughout the play--to lay out his motives for us, which is what happens here. In a decision that's even more damaging than making Iago/Hugo spill the beans, the writer and director have made the classic mistake of assuming that Othello is about race, an issue that, at most, is tangential to the play, which is first and foremost about jealousy.
Kit Bowen: Can I talk now? Geez, I guess we've hit the mother lode for Noah, folks. However, I agree with him to some extent. Obviously, when playing Iago in the play, the actor can go two ways, either playing it straight and serious or playing it for the devious and maliciously wry imp that he is. That's the beauty of it. However, in O, Josh Hartnett has been directed to play Hugo straight and, as if the audience were not smart enough, is given a very clear cut motive of a son not loved by his father. Boo hoo. I think if they chose to play Hugo as an apathetic rich spoiled kid who just didn't give a damn and did the whole thing for kicks, would have been much more interesting--and would relate better to this day and age. The race issue was completely unnecessary.
Hollywood.com: Of these teen remakes, which Shakespearean-themed movie have you thought worked the best?
Kit Bowen: My personal favorite was Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. I thought the whole modern reworking was brilliant, and that Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes had the maturity to handle the roles. Loved the part when Juliet actually wakes up before Romeo takes the poison. I thought maybe, just maybe, this time the plan would work. But that's because I'm a romantic.
Noah Davis: Romantic, shmomantic. Kit, you're softer than the Pillsbury Dough-Boy. The best translation of Shakespeare to a teen setting is My Own Private Idaho. Gus Van Sant knew what to change and what to leave alone to make this work, and work well. Keanu Reeves was Prince Hal, a bumbling doofus who doesn't know how to treat his true friends, and the scenes in the flop-house where he held court were a perfect mimicry of the parody device Shakespeare used in the play. River Phoenix gave a deep and moving performance, and the cinematography was excellent.
Hollywood.com: As Kit mentioned, Shakespeare is pretty weighty matter for a young actor to handle. Of the three leads, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer, who did the best job?
Noah Davis: Julia Stiles, who is now a veteran of three teen Shakespearean updates, does a fine job, even if she is hamstrung by the dialogue at times. Josh Hartnett had the right look for the high school dreamboat in The Virgin Suicides, but, so far, he hasn't given any indication of being an actor. He simply doesn't have the depth or sense of ominous mystery to pull off Iago. He acts entirely with his overhanging brow and clenched jaw, and he very quickly becomes a drag. Mekhi Phifer has some nice relaxed moments, especially cuddling in bed with Stiles. But this Othello has been drained of humor and sexy playfulness. Finally, he's as uninteresting as all upright young men usually are.
Kit Bowen: Ms. Stiles is certainly the standout because of her experience, but her Desi isn't the strongest performance she's given in a Shakespearean context. That would have to be Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, which is a juicier part for her by far. Phifer phones in the performance, but honestly, how can you take Othello and turn him into a prep school basketball star? Hartnett, on the other hand, was a victim of bad direction. I believe he could have turned in something more compelling if he was motivated to do so. He had something in his eyes that was creepily similar to the Iago I've seen on stage.