The Sinners is bad enough one wishes it veered into absurdist fun. It doesn’t.
As far as horror films go, there are a number of avenues to success, and thus, also plenty of room for forgiveness. Inane premise? I’ll bite. Annoying characters? Easy — just kill them off in fun, inventive ways. Plot holes around every corner? Whatever, an immaculate screenplay isn’t always necessary in the face of legitimate visceral thrills. So when I say The Sinners is borderline unwatchable, know that it’s not hyperbole. The film follows a group of seven girls at a strict Christian school who are dubbed “The Seven Deadly Sins,” with corresponding nicknames according to each girl’s sin of choice. Never mind the fact that none of the girls ever seem to actually do any sinning other than the occasional light bullying or mild parental rebellion. The girls, egged on by their teacher who inexplicably bears little importance here other than as a threat of sexual promiscuity, begin fearing for their lives when, one-by-one, somebody starts killing their members.
Okay, so maybe no one is expecting a screenwriting clinic with a run-of-the-mill slasher like this, but The Sinners is only barely coherent even. Also present are predictable plot twists, cringe-inducing dialogue, and paper-thin characters who dip in and out of the story with little rhyme and no reason — nothing necessarily unusual there. But the culmination of these familiar pratfalls and the film’s thoroughly unintelligible storyline makes for a film that feels like somebody (presumably, director Courtney Paige) saw The Craft: Legacy and thought it would be better with less narrative logic and more arch villainy. By the time a serial killer shows up to start whittling the group down, there’s absolutely no reason to care about any of the girls or that they’re being killed off, and the girls are so interchangeable that it doesn’t really matter which of them die, in which order, and who survives. Despite paying lip service to a potentially interesting conceit with the Seven Deadly Sins character-building, in the end there’s very little to differentiate any of one-note girls, and it becomes just a superficial gimmick, effectively discarded mere seconds after it’s introduced. Indeed, perhaps what most defines The Sinners is its infant-like sense of object permanence, immediately forgetting about characters, ideas, or narrative threads as soon as they leave the screen. Entire characters — notably the background Sinners, including Sloth, Gluttony, Envy, and Greed — fade so far into the background that it’s easy to forget they even exist, and the film doesn’t overly suffer for their absence; it’s not a great sign when characters aren’t memorable enough to warrant even notice their scarcity. And it never becomes clear why, in the film’s final twenty minutes, writers opted to include two law enforcement officials who seem to only exist in order to antagonize a character that we don’t care about with taunts of “Go back to the big city,” but by this point in The Sinners, this is honestly just sort of standard operating logic.
It all manages to be both baffling and boring, yet frustratingly never reaching the levels of absurdity that would at least add a bit of (unintended) humor. Over the course of the last half-century, the so-bad-it’s-good horror film has become an interpretive fixture of the genre. Horror fans are arguably the most indulgent of trainwreck cinema, actively seeking comedy and camp where actual scares might be lacking; it’s an admirable quality, seeking redemptive (low-brow) pleasures, paths to salvage a viewing experience, to make up for hammy acting, loose plots, and myriad other deficiencies common to the dregs of the genre. But The Sinners is practically a checklist of how not to make a horror movie, one that’s not even self-aware enough to disrupt its banality with good humor. For a lot of horror-heads, the release of a new, low-rent, 90-minute slasher is an invitation to get drunk and laugh at it with friends (in non-pandemic times, at least). Let us be very clear then: The Sinners isn’t even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | February 2021.