If cinema has taught us anything, it’s that whenever a writer moves to a new town/house/hotel, he or she is inevitably going to scare up something terrifying, start to go crazy, and possibly attempt to turn the spouse into cutlets. Regardless of the outcome, these types of scary movies (The Shining, 1408) usually pit the lead character against his own obsessions as much as against whatever Gothic specters appear in the bathroom mirror or skitter up a wall and across the ceiling. Sinister stays true to most of the writer-trapped-in-haunted-house tropes without digging up the corpses of older fright flicks. Unfortunately, a silly plot contrivance and an overly gloomy atmosphere blunt its scare-power.
The silly plot contrivance is a series of super 8 movies detailing horrifying murders, each film-can bearing a clever title and the year of the deed. At first it’s a suitably creepy and nauseating narrative device. The film opens on super 8 footage of a backyard tree from which four people, heads covered, hands bound, slowly rise in the air as the nooses around their necks tighten. The dying people silently kick under the muted rattle of the filmstrip. Sinister fades to black and then reopens on a family moving into a house.
The family belongs to Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a frustrated (and hacky, if his detractors are to be believed) true-crime writer chasing the high of Kentucky Blood, the best-seller he wrote a decade earlier. He’s hoping his new book will set his family up for life. This noble motivation (as well as to “see justice done”) is a flimsy cover for his burning desire to reclaim the fame that followed his brilliant hit –– and temper the notoriety brought on by his schlocky follow-ups. His solution? Move his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their school-age children, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Arrio) and Ashley (Clare Foley), to the semi-notorious house owned by the people hanged from their own tree.
Of course, Oswalt doesn’t tell his family this, because no wife is so supportive that she’d bring her kids up on a murder site — when she finds out mid-way through the movie, she, understandably, goes ballistic. The sheriff (former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson) doesn’t want Oswalt there either and informs the writer that he and his despicable taste won’t get any assistance from the sheriff’s department, despite the fan-fervor of Deputy So-and-So (he never gets an actual name). The deputy agrees to help Oswalt with story research in the hopes that he’ll be listed in the acknowledgements. Played by Jason Ransone (Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire), the deputy provides the film with some much-needed levity, stammering in star-struck awe and pointing out Oswalt’s irresponsible lunacy for sleeping in the house.
But Oswalt must press on. He stumbles across a box in the attic (as well as a huge, conspicuous scorpion) full of the aforementioned super 8 movies and a projector. He avidly sets it up in his dark office. Despite the horrific footage, all it takes is one look at the copies of Kentucky Blood in his bookshelf for him to stick to his fiendishly foolhardy course. As he watches and researches the murders depicted in the home movies, he discovers that each family had a child whose body disappeared following the slaughter, as well an occult symbol painted somewhere in the background and a (here it comes) sinister, pale face also lurking in the backgrounds.
The symbol sends Oswalt to consult a specialist who recognizes the symbol for its connection with an obscure Babylonian deity, Bughuul, who eats the souls of children in order to prolong his own life. Eventually, the hapless author puts most of the pieces together and does the right thing but too late.
Sinister is certainly scary — Oswalt’s investigations of the bumps and thumps in the house lead to plenty of jumpy moments. And as a true-crime subject, the family’s murder and its connection to the ones in the other films is compelling. Unfortunately, it’s much more compelling than the mystery behind the face in the videos. It’s as if once the supernatural becomes known, Sinister runs out of steam. Moreover, Oswalt spends most of his time in the dark. One can certainly appreciate his various writer’s tics, but when he’s wandering, yet again, through the spooky halls of his house trying to find the source of the scares, you want to scream at him to turn the friggin’ lights on! Just because he’s self-obsessed and driven doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Still, Hawke’s and Rylance’s performances as a married couple coming unglued because of a faded career are convincing, bringing up Oswalt’s ugly ambition and calling it for what it is.
The same cannot be said for the film’s resident evil. While the murder movies, with families being burned alive, drowned, and getting their throats slit, are gruesome, the plot’s conceit, once revealed, accidentally quickens the pace, making the film seem hastily finished. The idea that Bughuul lures children into his realm via images of himself explains the need for the super 8 films, but why in the world would a powerful deity use a format that’s a total hassle in 2012? The films are dated from the 1960s through the ’90s. Does Bughuul just never notice the evolution of A/V gear? What did he do before? Abduct kids with a zoetrope? And it’s not like super 8 is the only creepy format. Watch The Ring (or an ’80s dating video on YouTube) if you disagree.
Despite these flaws, Sinister is an entirely watchable thriller with enough gore and flickering light to satisfy people brought up on the Saw franchise. It’s a good enough entry in the genre to suffice until the next writer moves in with a ghost.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, and James Ransone. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Rated R.