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Horror Trifecta: <i>Sinister</i>, <i>Smiley</i> and <i>Grave Encounters 2</i>

With Halloween on the horizon, horror movies are crawling out of the woodwork to seize on the public appetite for all things spooky. Last week, the excellent anthology V/H/S opened in limited theatrical release following a run on VOD, while next Friday brings the return of the powerhouse Paranormal Activity franchise, now in its fourth edition. Before that well-known brand name clogs up multiplex screens in a week's time, three lesser-known horror titles open today to get a jump on the competition. One of them is actually spooky, while the only scary thing about the other two is that someone thought they were worth making.

Let's start with the most high-profile of the bunch, Sinister, which is backed by an established studio (Summit), features an established star (Ethan Hawke), is made by an established director (Scott Derrickson, of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Day the Earth Stood Still notoriety) and is penned by an established geek presence (C. Robert Cargill, who has taken aim at genre movies for years as a writer for Ain't It Cool News, blogging under the pen name Massawyrm). Although it boasts the most generic "scary movie" ad campaign and title this side of The Apparition -- that Ashley Greene "classic" that came and went in August -- Sinister turns out to be an enjoyable chiller built around a novel premise: What if a true-crime author discovered that the perpetrator of the crime chronicled in his newest book was something supernatural rather than your average, run-of-the-mill serial killer?

That's the unpleasant surprise in store for Ellison Oswald (Hawke), who penned one bestseller a decade ago and has been trying to recapture that glory ever since. Still chasing after his next big hit, he moves his wife and their two young kids to a small town that's still reeling from a horrific incident that left a family of four dead and a young girl missing. It's this case that the author hopes to crack and, in the process, refill his dwindling bank account. As further evidence of his desperation, Oswald has actually moved his own family into the murder house... not that he's shared that secret with them or anything. He also doesn't tell them about the box of home movies he finds in the attic -- home movies that depict a series of gruesome deaths, including the ones suffered by the house's previous inhabitants. Beyond the Saw-style murder traps that are sprung onscreen (the most inventive of which turns an ordinary backyard tree into a makeshift gallows), what unites these snuff films is the brief appearance of some kind of spectral presence lurking in the background of the frame. Digging deeper, Oswald eventually discovers that this phantom may, in fact, be an ancient demon who possesses the souls of children and turns them against their loved ones. Or it's also possible that he's simply making the whole thing up in his head, the strain of his stalled career, abject fear of failure and nascent alcoholism finally taking its toll on his fragile little mind.

Clearly, the building blocks for Sinister have been borrowed from The Shining, a similarity that becomes even more keenly felt when ghosts start popping out of the nooks and crannies of this seemingly ordinary suburban home and Oswald's wife (played by Juliet Rylance) screeches about her husband's deteriorating state in a pitch that approaches Shelly Duvall-levels of hysteria. It goes without saying that Derrickson is no Kubrick and Hawke is no Nicholson, but Sinister has its own modest pleasures, chief among them those home movies -- which are genuinely unnerving -- and a relaxed, almost leisurely, pace that doesn't rush from scare to scare. In fact, the first half plays much more like an amateur detective story than a traditional horror movie, as Oswald immerses himself in the clues of this ugly mystery, desperately looking for the elusive answer. Once the movie moves fully into the supernatural realm, its spell actually breaks a bit; the second half tries too hard to manufacture moments of otherworldly terror, when it's the characters' real-world fears that prove more primal. Overall, though, Sinister is a cut above most of the year's studio-backed horror offerings. Too bad it's destined to be steamrolled by Paranormal Activity 4 in a week.

If Sinister owes a certain debt to The Shining, Smiley is more or less a wholesale rip-off of Candyman, albeit one that stars a group of Scream-ready co-eds rather than Virginia Madsen. As in that 1992 cable staple, the movie is named for its central boogeyman who is summoned by a specific incantation that only the truly brave (or idiotic) feel compelled to utter. Instead of hanging out behind mirrors, this creature hides out in cyberspace, specifically on a Chatroulette-like social networking site. Here's how it works: cycle through the various faces until you find a person you'd particularly like to see dead and type "I did it for the lulz" three times, whereupon Smiley -- a knife-wielding maniac with the smile emoticon carved into his face -- will promptly creep up behind your target and stab him or her to a bloody pulp. At least, that's the urban cyberspace legend passed along to nervous co-ed Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) by her good-time loving college roommate, Proxy (Melanie Papalia). On a dare, Ashley summons Smiley and watches in horror as he kills some random guy she finds online. Guilt-ridden and genuinely freaked out, she tries to seek reassurance from cute dork Binder (Shane Dawson) and a stern professor (Roger Bart, who must have lost a bet to willingly appear in this mess), but -- real or not -- the menace of Smiley continues to loom large. The main thing (really the only thing) Smiley has going for it is the design of the central monster, whose slits and scars in place of facial features are quite creepy. But director Michael J. Gallagher, making his feature film debut here, often cuts away from Smiley too quickly, suggesting that the make-up wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny. The same can certainly be said for the film itself, which shows little of the resourcefulness that defines the best low-budget horror movies and is instead dominated by bad acting, derivative direction and indifferent plotting. Smiley the boogeyman may or may not be a joke, but Smiley the movie definitely is.

Last year's Grave Encounters was an enjoyable, if familiar found footage haunted house story, one that sent a group of paranormal investigators into an abandoned hospital, where they quickly became the prisoners of the building's ghostly residents. Like the granddaddy of all found footage horror movies, The Blair Witch Project, the film didn't cry out for a sequel, but they went ahead and made one anyway. And just as with the ill-fated Book of Shadows, the makers of Grave Encounters 2 unwisely gave into the temptation to go the full meta with the sequel (see also: The Human Centipede 2). After an opening montage of horror fans reviewing the original Grave Encounters in short YouTube clips, we're eventually introduced us to our "hero" for this installment, film student Alex Wright (Richard Harmon), who becomes obsessed with proving that all of the freaky footage seen in the first picture is 100% real. So he packs up some cameras and brings a small crew of his close friends and collaborators off to the scene of the paranormal crime. And guess what? Turns out he was right all along, which isn't good news for the poor kids he's dragged to their deaths. It's not particularly good news for us either, because incoming director John Poliquin (taking over from The Vicious Brothers, who wrote this installment and cameo briefly as themselves in one of the movie's many overdone self-aware gags) spends much of his time recycling scenes and scares from the previous movie to considerably lesser effect. And while the last 30 minutes do attempt to introduce some new wrinkles into the mythology, these developments don't ultimately contribute much beyond plot clutter. Not every breakout horror hit deserves a sequel -- Grave Encounters 2 is a prime example of that.

Finally, a quick word about the European-made action movie Special Forces, which may not technically fall in the horror movie genre, but it does put its characters in frightening circumstances. When a crusading journalist (Diane Kruger) is kidnapped by a local thug during a tour of duty in Afghanistan, a small squad of Special Forces soldiers (including Djmon Hounsou) is sent in country on a daring rescue mission. They acquire their target, but in the process are cut off from the rest of their unit and have to march through the unforgiving wilderness to safety, with nature and armed Taliban soldiers picking them off one by one. It's like a contemporary version of Peter Weir's 2010 movie The Way Back (and to a lesser extent, Joe Carnahan's The Grey), which told the supposedly true story of a group of World War II POWs who marched from Siberia to India to earn their freedom. That film had the benefit of a better cast and a more experienced director, but this one is executed competently enough, particularly once the soldiers are forced to battle the elements instead of cartoonish B-movie stereotypes. As freaky as demons and boogeymen can be, being trapped in a hostile environment with limited resources and no obvious hope of rescue is an even scarier situation.

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