“I knew I was in real danger, this was high school after all.” says Aubrey Miller, teen narrator of moody horror movie THE SINNERS whose face, frozen with a red rose placed in her mouth, opens a film that forgets the Devil… is in the details.
It’s no secret that female-driven films, particularly in horror, are subject to increased scrutiny. Often just the announcement of a female director is enough to send internet trolls out of their caves onto forums, denouncing a project before they’ve even seen it. Director Courtney Paige should be commended for not only directing but for helming a project including many women in cast and crew with, assumedly, the intention of highlighting exploitive morality of young women.
However, THE SINNERS suffers from a lack of focus and attention to detail in exploring its themes muddling the story and intent. In a small religious town, seven teenage girls (referred to as “The Seven Deadly Sins”) become entangled in something darker than themselves when, one by one, they go missing and turn up dead. While the film is narrated by Aubrey Miller aka Pride (Brenna Llewellyn), the focus is on Grace Carver aka Lust (Kaitlyn Bernard), the reverend’s daughter, virgin, just out of a bad relationship, friend of the hippies who sell flowers out of a van in the woods, and secret girlfriend of Tori Davidson aka Wrath (Brenna Coates). The problem begins there with two many undefined characters and characterizations lobbed out like softballs. There are still four other women/Deadly Sins yet remembering which one is which is difficult. Each “Sin” is introduced at the top with a scene at lockers where they’re given one line of narration defining who they are then recede into the background of scenes mostly revolving around Grace/Lust. It’s been proven with films like The Craft, Sugar and Spice, Mean Girls and the entire season of “Cheer” on Netflix that you can have a wide cast and still make each character clear and defined. This lack of character development in THE SINNERS creates caricatures where you want fleshed-out characters.
The lack of definition of the characters bleeds into the blurry tone of the film itself. There’s not enough contrast between what is supposed to be a conservative town and the dark acts taking place within it. And what contrast there is, is spread so thin it almost escapes notice. One female teacher is strict and dowdy as she admonishes the girls in their religious class while another female teacher from the same school is introduced through offering to sleep with her law enforcement husband right there in her empty classroom. Which begs the question, why have them be separate characters? Why not have a female, strict, teacher who then bucks all the rules once the girls are gone, letting her husband plow her on the desk as symbolism for the dynamic of the town itself? Despite the one dowdy teacher, everyone in this religious town looks like any middle American. There’s no lack of make-up or explicitly modest clothing. Even a scene of Satanic elements is quite muted by current standards, all red light and candles, which just doesn’t hit as hard when there’s so many popular properties out there, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Lucifer” and “Riverdale” and “Halloween Wars” among others, that do get that specific with occult elements and thus have raised audience expectations. Unless the intent was for the scene to be muted on purpose to underline Grace’s naïveté in which case THAT angle needed to be defined.
And so, it’s difficult to tell what reaction THE SINNERS is trying to get from its audience. Is it a melodrama? A thriller? A horror movie? Is the audience making fun if they laugh?
Performances are a mixed bag but Kaitlyn Bernard as Grace does a nice job as a young woman masquerading her vulnerability as cunning. A few notable names make appearances such as actor Dylan Playfair (of “Letterkenny” fame) as Grace’s ex, Kit. His delivery of the line “we’re having a bon fire in her honor” is not only hilarious, but a great example of painting an entire character with only a few words. But, again, it’s funny when it seemed like the film wanted the viewer to be uneasy about Kit. Instead, he was adorable. Lochlyn Munro (“Riverdale”, White Chicks) shows up late in the film as Detective O’Ryan, channeling some leftover Hal Cooper menace and pulling all focus as he does. But, again, not sure why there needed to be so many members of law enforcement written in when the film already had a full cast to contend with.
THE SINNERS is such an interesting concept with so many enticing themes and ideas introduced. It’s unfortunate the film couldn’t choose a specific direction, and so tried all of them, otherwise it had the potential to be a surreal melodrama like The Craft meets Pumpkin. However, while this review isn’t full of praise, THE SINNERS looks to be Courtney Paige’s first foray into feature directing and she chose a heavy topic with complicated thematics. THE SINNERS wasn’t entirely successful, but it was a big swing and almost landed. That’s a good start. Better than high school.
THE SINNERS arrives On-Demand on February 19, 2021.