Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sinister, Ringu, and the Corruption of the American Horror Film

So I saw Sinister last night.  The film starts out with a great piece of grainy super 8mm footage of some wonderful American brutality.  I got excited, thinking I was about to see a good old fashioned (as in, 1970s old fashioned) American horror film about human brutality and the horror of senseless violence, particularly in the United States.

Unfortunately, the movie eventually veered into the supernatural, asking the audience to go with it into a terrain that is entertaining, but not, ultimately, very scary.  What made the great independent horror films of the 1970s work was the rooting of the horror in reality.  Last House and Texas Chainsaw could very easily take place in the real world.  That made them more terrifying than any American horror film before them (and some purists would argue, since).

Over the last decade, the American horror film has struggled to maintain its identity.  The early part of the decade brought a flood of influence from Asian cinema.  I used to hear idiots walking around insisting "The Japanese do horror better than the Americans" all the time.  Usually from American filmmakers and enthusiasts.  The scariest films of the decade, however, came from American filmmakers (The Strangers and Paranormal Activity).  While Paranormal Activity veers into the supernatural, The Strangers proved that American filmmakers could still make very horrific, human horror films.  I thought Sinister would follow in those footsteps, but alas, most American horror is still suffering the hangover from the influence of Asian horror films. 

Sinister is a great example of filmmakers combining multiple elements from multiple horror films to come up with a hybrid that is both familiar and (deceptively) "new" at the same time.  A great example of this from the "good old days" is The Boogeyman, which spliced together Halloween and The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror to create a very bizarre film that seemed very new at the time.  Sinister takes the Asian obsession with ghosts and combines it with images of American brutality.  Good for box office receipts, but not so good for the state of the American horror film.

Sinister gets points for ending on a down-note, which is essential to a good horror film.  I fear that the supernatural influence, however, might hinder American horror films forever.  We don't need supernatural elements in our horror films.  Americans are fucking scary enough as it is!


  1. As a Japanese horror fan, I understand your point and would add that the best of Japanese horror cinema is also rooted in reality. "Flower of the Flesh and Blood" is such a traumatic experience for the reason that you could get snatched off the street any day and your dismemberment could be aired for entertainment on the internet. Fuck, it happened in Montreal recently (the whole Magnotta thing. We have the first snuff movie director/actor. Yay?)

    Same thing for the quintessential Miike and Tsukamoto's Vital. Heck, it's almost a love story. I don't mind a tight turn into the supernatural, but when directors lose sight of what's important (I.E how scary humans are), it veers into bullshit. My favorite horror movie, SESSION 9, by Brad Anderson blurs the line between psychological and supernatural. Makes for the best horror, me thinks.

  2. Good comments, Ben, sorry I didn't catch them sooner. I forgot about some of those Japanese films that don't have any supernatural stuff in them (The Audition, for instance). I was really just reacting to Sinister, which I thought could have been great if everything had been tied to human whackos. These movies (with supernatural stuff) still do the basic job of a horror movie--they scare the audience--but I just wonder if they resonate, long term, the way, say, Last House on the Left or Texas Chainsaw (or even NotLD) did.