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Why do I keep doing this to myself, eh? Ghost stories. I often have a real problem with them. But then again, every now and again there'll be a big surprise like the American version of "The Grudge" or "Thir13en Ghosts" or (if it counts as a ghost movie, since I realise that's a bit of a stretch) "Hellbound: Hellraiser II".

Still, one benefit of taking part in a horror movie marathon over October is that is makes me try out horror movies which I'd normally consider beneath me. Horror movies which I'd probably pass over suddenly seem worth checking out when trying to get through a whole bulk of them.

There's actually been quite a bit of buzz around "Sinister" and while it didn't look like my sort of film at all, it definitely had plenty of fans amongst horror lovers. I had higher hopes, however, for "The Changeling", viewed as a personal favourite by Tony from the Horror Etc Podcast. Still Tony is the sort of person who takes the prospect of ghosts very seriously while I am the sort of person who has real trouble suspending belief on that sort of thing.

The Changeling (1980)

This 1980 horror movie begins with a slow burn approach. That is, after the opening it does. Before the movie has even really begun, our protagonist watches his wife and daughter die in a tragic accident. The next thing we know he's packing up the contents of his enormous apartment in New York and associates a red ball in particular with time spent with his daughter.

I have to say, at this stage I couldn't help but wonder how much money our protagonist makes (or perhaps how much his wife made). Anyway, when he's boxed up all the contents of the apartment to move to Seattle, he then visits a friend in an absolutely enormous house. Both our protagonist and his friend are revealed to be teachers (or more like lecturers). Our protagonist will turn out to teach an "advanced music" course, but he appears to be rehearsing for a concert too. Still, neither of these things explain his massive house. So it seems that either his wife had a high-paying job or one or the other of them inherited an enormous sum of money. That'll be important to the plot later.

Anyway, his friends suggest that he get a new place, so what could be better for a lonely man who has just lost his wife and daughter than to lease an enormous mansion? Yes, really. This is not an exaggeration at all. It's like the mutants' school in X-Men. It's colossal. There's one point where the protagonist has just got home from work and he's parked the car in the garage and he's making his way to the front door. There's creepy music in the background, but I'm rather more concerned as to why there's such an enormous waste of money. He hasn't reached the inside of the house, yet already there are lights on in around 6 different rooms on the ground floor. What a waste of electricity!

Anyway, there are some odd noises in the house during the night, but it's all very ambiguous since old houses can be expected to make noises. But it seems like the noises have been part of a whole series of hints intended to help our protagonist find a secret hidden room which holds the key to a dark secret. Not long after finding the secret room, there's some weird phenomena in the house regarding the red ball that used to belong to the protagonist's daughter. It appears to have teleported to the top of the stairs in order to bounce down. Doing a bit of a test with this item of such enormous sentimental value to him, the protagonist confirms that the ghost is definitely teleporting this item to the top of the stairs.

It's at this point in the plot where, out of nowhere, it is revealed that the college where he works has an entire wing devoted to the study of psychic phenomena. This is the point where I really find my suspension of disbelief tested. It's one thing to imagine that ghosts exist, but to imagine that there's a large psychic investigation department at a university that is looking forward to investigating our protagonist's situation, finds the idea of object teleportation to be perfectly typical phenomena and who, while recognising that 99% of the cases they investigate are fraudulent, still feel excited about this 'big creepy haunted mansion' story. They bring in a medium and after the session is over it turns out that the recording contains the actual voice of the ghost entirely unambiguously.

Still, while the actual medium stuff is going on it felt very much like a template for later scenes of a similar nature in other movies. When the medium is asking "why do you remain in this house" I couldn't help but think of "The Others", which is one of the major exceptions to my ghost-movie-hatred.

It turns out that the child, that is now a ghost, died because of some kind of inheritance scheme. (I won't give any more details than that.) Anyway, some other character turns out to be the current inheritor of the money, but he's not the murderer. In fact, the murderer is dead by now. Yet the figure in question seems to be seen as the rightful subject of the ghost's retribution. Never mind that he didn't do anything wrong. Unless inheriting money is wrong, of course; in which case I want to know: Where did the protagonist's money to lease this enormous mansion by himself come from?

The initial build-up is a really slow burn and that could be fine if it were building to some kind of worthwhile climax. But when the ghost starts getting a chance to really let loose, the film gets ridiculous. When a woman is being chased across the landing by a wheelchair, that's when I started cracking up. Yes, you read that right. One character gets chased by a wheelchair. Yeah, I'm a cynic. However, the issue for me here wasn't so much the ghost's superpowers (though that's still very much a problem) but rather the cheesy tropes involved here.


Sinister (2012)

Once again we have someone with far too much money to spend. Seriously, where do they GET all this money? A writer who has had one successful 'true crime' book, followed by a string of two rather disappointing follow-ups, has decided that he'll get better results on a fourth true crime book if he buys the house where a murder took place, with one girl now missing. Sure this is recognised as a bit of a gamble, but the family have not sold their old house and the wife of the writer does not appear to have a job (hence how she is so easily able to uproot and move house with her writer husband).

Anyway, leaving aside where the money comes from, the true crime angle actually interested me. However, even if he's wrong to think this is a typical true crime story involved here, Ethan Hawke's protagonist writer character still seems to be asking the wrong questions. I don't get the impression that this person is at all thorough enough to get a massively successful true crime hit - even as a one-off.

There's some question over whether the protagonist has brought things on himself by lying to his family and moving them into a house with a disturbing past simply in order to advance his own writing career. Then again, this is a pretty unlikely and convoluted premise in the first place which might actually have been more creepy if there had been real world results rather than supernatural ones. (The police claim they are presuming that the missing girl is dead at this stage, so the case is seemingly over and there's no reason why very down-to-earth sinister elements couldn't return to the house.)

Early on in the film and the main focus of all marketing is that there is a box of cinefilm in the attic. And the protagonist even asks how it got there along with a whole other set of questions. It seems pretty clear that this whole set of cinefilm clips belong to a serial murderer. Ethan Hawke knows this and he's acting as a private investigator and he has his whole family living in the house where the cinefilm was located, so why isn't he desperately looking at down-to-earth clues to work out how it could have got there? Sure, he might not find any because it's all basically MAGIC *groan*, but he could at least make an effort, right?

Instead our protagonist decides to attach a load of photos together with string. And comes to the surprising conclusion that these murders must be linked. He reluctantly decides to let an actual police officer help him, providing him with little information to actually go on and not mentioning the cinefilm at all. Okay, so this character is an idiot, but I thought he might at least do SOME actual 'true crime' investigation work.

In actual fact, mostly what he does is try to work on vague details and watch cinefilm clips at night only to wander around and get freaked out in the dark. It doesn't help that his son suffers from night terrors and will often sleepwalk and scream.

Eventually (and this is in the trailer too) he discovers that an occult symbol is linked to all the murders. Finding this occult symbol is about the most solid investigative work we ever really see from our protagonist. An expert explains that the symbol is connected to old mythology about a demon that 'eats children' by taking them to some other ethereal realm. Our protagonist never really considers which one of his children might be in line for this fate, which I suppose is unsurprising since he's in denial about this possibility even when he's gone completely paranoid and seems to have entirely bought into the supernatural option.

My main problem with "Sinister" is simply that I found it boring. The performances are good. The main monster is a demon, not a ghost, so I am happy with it having super powers. The central conceit is just so stupid though. There's nothing tying this creepy premise to the real world at all and while there is plenty to praise in regards to the use of sound effects in the film, the build up of the mythology was kind of uncompelling. To be quite frank, for all the criticism of the red-faced Darth-Maul-alike demon from "Insidious" I found him much more interesting than the demon in "Sinister", even if I think "Sinister" is a much better movie overall (albeit still not great). Sure, "Sinister" doesn't do the build up of violins and feedback, but in a way it might as well do that because the 'bangs' it keeps doing on their own are rather uninteresting.

The movie didn't really seem to me to be able to give a good explanation of why this is a creepy and compelling scenario before it started trying to scare me with it and I think in a better movie with better plot progression, the revelations at the end might have been a lot more effective. "Sinister" is a load of reasonably good elements bundled together in a topsy turvy way and the whole is not as good as the sum of its parts. Some good camera effects, good acting, good sound and even some quite good ideas in-the-making, doesn't matter much when the overall film is just stupid and boring.

I was also rather annoyed with the role the protagonist's wife gets lumbered with where she's this killjoy trying to stamp on his dreams. She says she supports him, but that if the book doesn't do well she's going to take the children and move to another state with relatives. NO PRESSURE NOW! She later suggests that her husband should really just quit being a writer and give up his dreams because (and this is the worst part) "your children are your legacy". Oh yeah, heaven forbid he be remembered for something HE did. Instead he should just accept that the only memorable thing about his life will be the brats he spawned to replace himself. Oh great. I feel sorry for the actress expected to play this miserable character and really worried by the way the film expects us to accept this point of view as the unquestionable morally superior perspective.

Ethan Hawke made a really good stab at trying to sell this to me and the individual lines aren't even that bad, but the overall plot just entirely failed to grip me. To quote Dave Lister from "Red Dwarf": "Can't you tell the story is not gripping me? I am in a state of non-grippness, I am completely smegging ungrippered!"




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