Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Featuring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson
I was one of the few horror fans who genuinely wasn't impressed by Insidious. While I liked the performances and thought the premise was all right, to me nothing about it screamed "incredible" as it seemed to do to my colleagues. Thus, when it leaked at SXSW 2012 that the big secret screening was to be Sinister, which shares some of the behind-the-scenes puppeteers with Insidious, I skipped it in lieu of catching a different flick. Tonight, I got the chance to remedy the situation and I think I made the wrong choice back at the festival; Sinister is clever, interesting and well-done — all in all, one of the more intriguing horror films in recent memory.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) used to be a household name; a true crime writer who penned a New York Times bestseller ten years ago, he's now one step away from editing college textbooks just to keep a roof over his family's head. Luckily, the Stevenson family just got horribly murdered and their house went up on the market for a rock-bottom price. Without a moment to waste, Ellison packs up his naggy English wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and his two tots, Ashley and Trevor, and relocates them to the murder house under the guise of writing the book that will be his big comeback. He neglects to tell Tracy and the kids what happened in the house, and as soon as they roll into town the local sheriff makes sure to come by to tell Ellison that he thinks moving in was in extremely bad taste.
Upon beginning to unpack, Ellison discovers in the otherwise-vacant attic an abandoned box containing a vintage projector and several reels of neatly labeled 8mm home movies with innocuous titles like "Family Hanging Out," "Barbecue," "Lawn Work," etc. Out of curiosity, he puts on "Family Hanging Out" only to see film footage of the Stevenson family being executed, hanged from the tree in their backyard. "Barbecue" involves a different family being gagged and drugged, piled into their sedan and set on fire in their garage. And so on, and so forth. Each film uncovers a new horrific massacre, and as Ellison investigates further, he sees a recurring figure in each film, a ghastly white-faced creature with long black hair, watching the slaughter take place. He begins to realize that the Stevenson family's murder wasn't isolated and that the one thing that links all of the crimes together — besides the white-faced creature — is the fact that, in each case, a single member of the family was spared: a young child who is then never seen or heard from again.
Ellison is one of the most interesting protagonists I recall seeing in a long time; in my opinion, it's some of the strongest acting I've ever seen from Hawke, and the character manages to be both empathetic and infuriating all at once. He takes on a Jack Torrence quality as the film progresses, obsessed with solving the murder and positive that his wife is out to sabotage and distract him when she tries to pull him back to reality. He eventually descends into heavy drinking, paranoia, insomnia and hallucinations. The house becomes both his prison and his inspiration. He distances himself from his children and puts their well-being second to that of piecing together the clues he's being given by supernatural forces, but at the same time he begins to form a morbid attachment to the victims of the crimes he's investigating.
However, the film has a lot of loose ends and red herrings that make it feel as if, much like the Super 8 home movies Ellison's watching, there is a lot that's been spliced out and left on the cutting room floor. The son Trevor suffers severe night terrors, which are worked into the plot several times but never explained or dealt with. Mention is made of a past case where Ellison's writing actually helped a killer walk free due to the author interfering with the investigation, but this is said only in passing and the audience is left only extremely vague context clues to put together what happened. A lot of the scares are formulaic; you have your score-swells and jump noises, you have still pictures that suddenly become animate, you have blurs running past the camera behind a character's back, and you have apparitions appearing suddenly and lunging out of the shadows like they're being shot out of a cannon. The only thing missing is a cat leaping out of a closed closet (although they make up for this by randomly putting an exotic snake in the attic of the house). These are offset by moments of general creepiness, enough so that the goose bumps were prickling on my forearms — watching Ellison explore a completely darkened house using only the flashlight app on his iPhone for light is tense as hell, and the actual 8mm films are very unsettling and effective. They actually feel like homemade snuff films.
The ending is a twist, of course, but if you keep your eyes open and have seen the trailers/posters/promotional materials, it won't be a big shock. And this is where the movie begins to fall apart. What starts as flick with a strong script, solid performances and some genuinely freaky scare moments suddenly becomes trite; the filmmakers begin playing it safe, pandering to the audience with corny one-liners and a predictable twist. The final shot actually pissed me off on par with how most people felt about The Devil Inside's URL plug, but — SPOILER ALERT — the two seconds before the credits roll are a jump scare like those viral videos on the Internet where you're watching a music video and randomly a subliminal flash of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and a loud sound effect pop up on your screen and make you pee yourself. The film does that as its parting shot to the audience, and while it may work on a few more gullible viewers, my mostly empty theater just snickered and a few people muttered in disapproval as the lights came up.
A film that's so well-acted, beautifully lighted and shot, and full of believable, interesting, three-dimensional characters dissolving so readily at the end is just disheartening. However, I do feel like some of these choices were made in the editing room, and perhaps an unrated/director's cut release will clear up the faint bad taste in my mouth. Overall, Sinister is worth a watch, but, like Insidious, it's nothing for me to write home about.
I'm glad there is a review for this. I was genuinely freaked out when I watched the trailer and thought it seemed very promising. I mean "Insidious" didn't really scare the crap out of me as it did others. I mean it had good atmosphere, but I felt the scares were just pretty average for the most part. Maybe I will watch it again. But this looks like it will deliver on the scares. I felt very uneasy just watching the trailers and even the red band trailers. I hope to see it next weekend, or if I'm lucky and have some spare time try to make see a showing during the week. I have heard there was some issues, but overall a pretty effective movie.
"I hurt" - Karen Cooper "Night Of The Living Dead"