The footage is grainy Super 8. A family of four, mom and dad and the kiddies, stand with hands tied behind their backs and bags over their heads. Nooses tighten 'round their necks; the other end of the rope attaches to the old tree in the back yard. A large limb counterbalances them; when an unseen hand saws it off, the fine folk lift off the ground, struggling against strangulation.
The family had a fifth member, a little girl. She remains missing.
In this media-saturated culture, it's damnably difficult to produce a game changer, something genuinely fresh in horror. Sinister doesn't really try, though it brings its own twisted mix to the genre, blending conventional and found footage horror. What it really succeeds in doing is being the best haunted house movie of the 2012 Halloween season. Yes, it's one of those movies where a family moves into a house with a dark history and creepy stuff starts happening, but it's also one of those cinematic equivalents of a haunted attraction. It's suitably scary, boasting both creeping psychological horror and cheap "Boo!" frights, but, once you've gotten over the start or the scream, you're likely to laugh. It has a disturbing premise that can get under your skin, but which becomes ridiculous if you think about it for any length of time.
In short, you could do a whole lot worse than Scott Derickson's Sinister this Halloween season, and I fully expect it to join the regular television fear-fest rotation. Just don't expect your life to change, or even your thoughts about the horror genre.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, an obsessive true crime writer whose first and last real success lurks a decade in the past. He has uprooted his small family more than once, hoping to find the story that will make his next book a success. The local sheriff greets him at this new town. He admires the first book, but considers the others cheap exploitation. He doesn't think much of Oswalt moving into town to solve a mystery that he thinks might be best left alone. He especially doesn't like that Oswalt has moved into the murder home-- a fact the author has concealed from his family. Nevertheless, the entire police department doesn't feel the same way. An eager and often hilarious deputy, played by James Ransone, quietly offers his services. He initially seems a realistic turn on Barney Fife; as the film progresses, we'll see that he's actually quite competent, and wise enough to realize when he's in over his head.
The ego-driven Oswalt lacks any such insight. On his first day in the house, he finds a box filled with Super 8 film, some of it decades old. The police photos reveal the truth; someone placed the box there only after the investigation had ended. The first reel shows the home's last inhabitants in quiet, family-friendly times. We start to relate to them, or want to. Then we see their grisly deaths. The other reels grow more disturbing, documenting the grotesque ritual killings of families in various places across America. Like the audience of a horror film, Oswalt develops a voyeuristic obsession. The images disturb and terrify him, but he cannot turn away. He studies each frame, seeking clues in dark celluloid corners, aware he is onto something bigger than he ever imagined. Much later, he will even locate and view the extended editions of these films. Initially, he calls the police, and then cancels the call. It won't be the last stupid move he makes-- but more on his behavior later.
The film takes place almost entirely in an ordinary house, a dwelling of the sort you might be sitting in right now-- where you might watch this movie, if you see on tv or as a download. Sinister makes brilliant use of light, shadow, sound, and perception, so that, as Oswalt searches the corners of his found footage, so do our eyes dart over the screen, wondering what may be hiding in its dark corners. The use of music and ambient audio proves pitch-perfect at setting the tone and keeping the audience jittery.
As the film progresses, Oswalt's reality starts in subtle ways to resemble the found footage, with quick jump cuts and slightly odd focus. I wasn't overly impressed with the director's last horror outing, The Exorcism of Emily Rose; here, he does an exceptional job. Hawke, too, gives a strong performance as Oswalt. His long-suffering family feel left behind; he sporadically rediscovers them when the evil he has uncovered touches their lives. Throughout, the cast members prove adept.
The film needs these assets. Despite having one of the most intriguing film mythologies since Ringu (one of its most obvious influences), the script suffers from some rather silly and clichéd horror-scripting.
Sinister attempts to justify its protagonist's stupid, destructive behavior. He's obsessive, he's an egoist, he's drinking heavily, he's not sleeping well. Fine. I'll even accept that he cancels that call to the police, a call any sane person would have made. He clearly has taken a Shining to the case. But Sinister pushes the tropish behavior too far. Oswalt investigates spooky noises at night without bothering to turn on the lights. The best-selling crime writer fails to recognize connections that intelligent audience members see immediately. He finally realizes that something stalks his family, something either supernatural or diabolically clever and, when he thinks he sees it in his yard, he wanders out armed only with a baseball bat and his cell phone light. Without telling anyone what he's doing. Leaving the house door wide open behind him.
Appliances starting themselves in the night? Yeah, just keep that one to yourself, make no rational attempt to investigate the cause, and soldier on.
He's not the only character prone to outbreaks of plot-enabling imbecility. How does his wife not realize that they're living in the murder house? And how has the connection identified by the deputy (and deduced earlier by half the audience) gone unnoticed by crime investigators for decades, especially in an era when the details of these murders can be found online? Yes, most viewers will accurately predict the conclusion (including the identity of the final killer) long before the film reveals them. These facts may bar Sinister from being a true horror masterpiece in the eyes of many, but at least the story plays fair with its evidence and right by its premise.
Sinister has franchise written all over it, which is too bad. I see no way each subsequent movie won't simply cheapen the value of the first, become a means to sell theatre tickets to bored teens and monster masks to little kids. Then again, most people don't consider haunted houses and cornfield mazes high art. This is a spook show, a roadside attraction for the brave to shiver through on Halloween.
Would Scott Derickson agree? Consider the final image before the credits roll, and tell me.
Directed by Scott Derickson
Written by Scott Derickson and C. Robert Cargill
Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt
Juliet Rylance as Tracy Oswalt
James Ransone as Deputy So-and-So
Michael Hall D’Addario as Trevor Oswalt
Clare Foley as Ashley Oswalt
Fred Dalton Thompson as Sheriff
Victoria Leigh as Stephanie
Vincent D’Onofrio as Professor Jonas
Nicholas King as Bughuul