Being a fan of horror is a double-edged sword. You seek out as many movies as you can, looking for more and more scares, but that effort also numbs you to the images onscreen, making you more and more difficult to frighten. Eventually you’re watching things you know intellectually are terrifying, even if you don’t find yourself the least bit scared. Add to that the sorry state of Hollywood horror, in which most major releases are trend-following cash grabs, and watching horror can by and large be a thankless pursuit.
But every so often something sneaks into major release that surprises you by making the dark walk home through quiet streets feel like it could be your last, and causing you to turn on every light once you’re safely indoors. Writer/director Scott Derrickson’s new film, Sinister, is one of those rare gems.
The film stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who moves his family into a house where a horrific family murder took place. He’s desperate to write the next In Cold Blood, but the stress of strained finances and a failing marriage are driving him to drink and to hear many things going bump in the night. Not helping his state of mind are the images he sees on a bunch of super 8 films he finds in the attic of the house, depicting not only the murders there, but also connected ones in other cities. The movie’s eventual twist can be seen from the very start, but because the movie is essentially told from his perspective, the predictability doesn’t become a weakness. Within that framework, Derrickson creates a bone-chilling occult thriller that has plenty of make-you-jump moments that might be cheap adrenaline rushes from lesser films, but seem earned given just how much skill he displays (with a huge assist from Christopher Young’s fantastically macabre soundtrack) at creating a frightening atmosphere.
Ben Affleck’s latest has been getting big Oscar buzz ever since it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, and with good reason. It’s easily his best film yet as a director, and also has all the sorts of things one looks for in a Best Picture nominee: a grand scope, a historical basis, an uplifting story of human triumph. The film is based on the true story of the escape of six employees of the American consulate in Iran, who had escaped from the embassy compound to the home of the Canadian ambassador while the rest of the embassy was taken hostage in 1979. In order to get them out, a CIA exfiltration expert (played by Affleck), with the help of some contacts in Hollywood, creates a cover story about location scouting a film production in the hopes of passing off the six as a Canadian movie crew in order to get them out in a daring broad-daylight escape via the airport.
With each film under his belt as director, Affleck shows more storytelling assurance, and Argo moves along briskly, with a great balance of humor in the ludicrousness of the operation to set up a fake movie in the Hollywood circus set against the life-or-death survival story of the escapees. The escape sequence itself is a skillful set piece of tension and thrills—though it does go a little overboard in the way Affleck has them just getting out under the wire in a half dozen different ways that seem a little too constructed to be as true to life as much of the rest of the film feels. Still, it’s such a fun ride, at that point it seems pointless to complain.
When watching the classic William Wyler adaptation of Emily Brontë’s only novel, the essential misery and pettiness of the doomed would-be lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine, is somewhat concealed under the romantic sweep of Wyler’s period drama. Audiences arriving for Andrea Arnold’s new take on the novel may be a little disoriented by the utter lack of period piece airs put on this story, as well as the impressionistic techniques she uses to tell the story. Fans of Arnold’s work will be familiar with her style: extremely visually oriented, preferring to let a handheld camera watch in voyeuristic close-up rather than rely on dialogue to be the primary delivery method for the narrative.
But even more striking than that style is the way in which she strips these characters down to their abusive and vindictive cores. Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) is as fickle and opportunistic as ever, while Heathcliff (James Howson) is sullen and feral, and as he puts up with the continued abuse doled out by Catherine’s horrible brother, Hindley, he becomes as tempestuous and violent as the storms that lash the Yorkshire countryside. That landscape, richly colored through Arnold’s lens, plays practically as much of a role in the film as the leads, as the harsh environment, with occasional moments of unspeakable beauty (one could really just spend the entire running time marveling at Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s staggeringly gorgeous compositions), reflects the alternating romance and despair of the classic relationship between these two. When the end comes, the feeling is less one of overwhelming tragedy for their missed opportunities, and more one of relief that they can stop tormenting one another.
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