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Sinistre (1996)

Directed by Ronnie Sortor
Englewood Entertainment VHS

Some of my most non-electrifying memories were made while sitting in a room and talking:

- The time that Mike from IT told me about his new dog.

- The time when Christine, my sixty-something boss at Denny’s, told me about her one night stand with Greg, the cook.

- The time when my tenth-grade sweetheart told me that she didn’t want to kiss anymore because she liked girls.

Sinistre is built around people sitting in rooms and and talking.

That means exactly what you think it means.

Three criminals are on the run. Two of them get in a fist fight while driving the getaway car. The other one dies in the back seat. Soon, the crooks reach a decrepit mansion in the middle of nowhere. We see a couple in bed together. A woman talks about quitting her job. She gets out of bed. The couple does not appear again.

We spend thirty minutes with the convicts as they walk around the house and talk. A killer with an axe shows up. He resembles the Tall Man from Phantasm if the Tall Man was a forty-four-year-old Nine Inch Nails fan who was obsessed with Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The killer also has a posse of zombies that have glowing red eyes and fingernails that resemble Lady Deathstrike from the X-Men. The zombies are frightening in a local Halloween haunted house kind of way, but they occasionally talk like normal people. This worked in An American Werewolf In London because the concept of an undead human speaking like a normal person was presented as fact. It doesn’t work here because it’s presented as a means to set-up slapstick gags involving severed limbs.

For a shot-on-video (SOV) passion project, Sinistre is surprisingly ambitious. The structure is abstract and the tone is schizophrenic. The movie jumps from ugly violence to eye-rolling comedy without warning, feeling like a sub-basement tribute to Pulp Fiction by way of The Dead Next Door. There’s plenty of juicy gore, like beheadings, a kitchen full of severed body parts, and giant squibs that explode like M-80s. The bedroom synth soundtrack sounds like someone trying to replicate Jay Chattaway’s songs from Vigilante with a Casiotone 501 keyboard. Some of the characters are presented with a deeper emotional core, unlike other similarly-budgeted SOV movies like Dead Is Dead and Goblin. These are all good things.

BUT!

The potential of Sinistre is buried under a mountain of audio and visual chaos. It’s enough of a challenge to sit through a movie that features people walking around, sleeping, and having aimless conversations for over half of its runtime. But on top of that, the dialogue sounds like it was recorded with a flip phone underneath a waterfall by drunken hobos. The photography is sometimes so dark and jagged that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a human face and a pizza. Sinistre feels like a demo tape instead of a proper album. Eight times out of ten, I prefer demos to finished records. But when the sonic quality of the demos makes my ears bleed, I stop listening.

Watching Sinistre feels like being caught in someone else’s cyclical dream. It’s hypnotic and fascinating, but mostly dull. The same description could be applied to Jean Rollin’s The Rape Of The Vampire, but I can watch that movie over and over. There’s always something new to discover. The visual beauty motivates us to spend time unravelling the cryptic message.

With Sinistre, the message is lost. I wanted it to be something more than it was meant to be.