Widely billed as “From the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious”, supernatural horror Sinister bravely slams together two worn horror genre clichés: a struggling writer and a haunted house.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true crime author who’s struggling to recreate his earlier success. Ten years before the events of Sinister, his book Kentucky Blood was a bestseller, resolving a crime the police had been unable to figure out, and briefly making him a media celebrity. Now married to wife Tracy (Juliette Rylance) and with two kids to feed, he’s keen to get started on a book that will again establish him as a writer of merit.
“We didn’t just move two doors down from a crime scene, did we?” Tracy asks, as she and Ellison move boxes into their new small-town dwelling. “Of course we didn’t,” Ellison replies.
This isn’t a lie. In his quest for literary glory, Ellison’s selfishly moved his family into a house with a terrible past. The previous occupants (another white middle-class family) met a horrible death in the back garden, while the youngest child subsequently disappeared.
Ellison’s determined to make the murders the subject of his latest book, and despite the veiled threats of local sheriff (played by Fred Dalton Thompson), he’s willing to go to any lengths to get to the bottom of who killed them. Shortly after he moves in, the writer discovers an old box of 8mm film in the loft, which far from providing clues to his investigation, maddeningly deepen it. Who committed the crime? Who filmed it, and why? And how did the reels end up in the loft?
For the most part, Sinister is about its protagonist’s growing obsession. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still) appears to be deeply influenced not just by the horror genre (most obviously The Shining) by such films as Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Like the main characters of those films, Ellison becomes consumed by a mystery, and spends long periods of time engrossed in the pursuit of the truth – like us, he’s repulsed by what he sees, but can’t quite bring himself to look away.
He watches and re-watches grainy lengths of footage, sometimes pausing over individual frames and scanning them for clues. Some of this footage looks uncannily like the home videos William Petersen’s character pores over in Manhunter, and there’s a similar sense that Ellison, like the protagonist in that film, is losing his mind in the process of finding what he’s looking for. As the plot unfolds, and the mystery deepens and widens in scope, things begin to go bump in the night, and Ellison’s nerves begin to fray.
So intriguing is this premise, and so compelling is Hawke as a cardigan-wearing man of questionable moral fibre, that it’s almost disappointing when the supernatural horror elements come rushing in. After a promising build-up, Sinister introduces a long series of jump-scare moments. The first of these is admittedly brilliant, and presents an image of such jaw-dropping, surreal intensity that the rest of the movie can’t hope to match it.
Thereafter, Sinister’s story beats unfold to a particular rhythm: each ten-minute block of careful investigation or familial drama is punctuated by a moment of shrieking fright, as though its makers aren’t confident that the story is engrossing enough to stand on its own. Doors slam, objects come crashing to the ground, animals attack, and Christopher Young’s score screams in our face, but each moment of false shock is ultimately less effective than the last.
Even the most jarring of these scares can’t gloss over Sinister’s more fundamental problems. The script, written by Derrickson and C Robert Cargill, services the plot more than its characters. An actor of Hawke’s calibre can bring plenty of gravitas to such dialogue as, “Once we sell my new book, we’ll be on easy street!” and Juliette Rylance can utter, “If this goes sour like last time, I’ll go back to my sister’s!”, but they’re clunky lines nevertheless.
It’s also fair to say the conclusion isn’t difficult to guess, and that the film’s cinematography and lighting is more workmanlike than inspiring. Add in a distractingly rushed performance from Vincent D’Onofrio (who appears on a laptop screen to provide some useful exposition), and you might think that Sinister’s a horror movie to be avoided.
Yet in spite of all these faults, there’s something undeniably powerful about Sinister. Hawke’s performance holds the screen through its more hackneyed moments, and it’s the scenes where it’s just him, a projector, and a few feet of hideous 8mm footage where the movie truly convinces. And while its scares are frequently cheap, it’s also difficult to deny that Sinister sometimes manages to inspire moments of palpable dread.
What’s frustrating is that, had its makers gone for a more subtle approach than the hectoring, wall-of-noise path they’ve taken, they may have wound up with an unforgettable, classier film like Manhunter, The Conversation, or The Shining rather than one that goes for short-term scares.
As it is, Sinister’s a bit like an old ghost train ride at a fun fair, where the proprietor’s decided to randomly punch his customers to spice things up a bit; initially, the random strikes to the skull provoke a strong reaction, but by the time the ride grinds to a halt, you’re left feeling shaken, exhausted, and just a little resentful.
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