Sinister September 13, 2016
Before it descends into unbecoming over-explanation that causes it to resemble the Guillermo Del Toro-produced Mama more than the James Wan-helmed The Conjuring in terms of great modern horror, 2012’s Sinister, co-written (with C. Robert Cargill) and directed by Scott Derrickson, is a mover and a shaker that derives unmistakable, unfiltered terror from its audience until it doesn’t anymore.
It stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a down-on-his luck writer who hasn’t had a hit in more than a decade. True crime is his forte, but finding another story as subversively sordid as his last blockbuster has proven to be immensely difficult. “I’d rather cut my hands off than write a book for money,” we witness him boasting in a press interview during his prime. But at this point, he’s desperate for a little bit of green. His family is in the slums financially, and he’d do anything to discover his very own In Cold Blood styled tale and receive notoriety again.
So he moves his clan to a welcoming house in the suburbs, much to the annoyance of his otherwise understanding wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario). Ellison promises that their re-location is only temporary - he’s merely looking for some inspiration for his next #1 - but his motivations are much darker than he lets on. Just months earlier, a family, the Stevensons, was simultaneously hanged in the backyard of their new home. The killer remains at large, and the youngest member of the murdered outlet, Stephanie, is missing. Ellison figures that getting as close as he can to the scene of the crime will rightfully win him back his former prosperity, even if he has to put his own family at risk in the process.
But only moments into Sinister does Ellison stumble upon a stack of Super 8 reels resting in the attic. Because any evidence is good evidence for a novel that’s supposed to be revelatory, he pops them into a projector and sees where they take him. To his horror, each “home movie” in this box of treasures is a snuff movie, graphically showing various households being slaughtered in all sorts of nefarious ways. Dates range from 1966 to 2011 and an obvious pattern is murky. But Ellison is certain that he’s struck gold for consuming reading material. Smile through the pains of such eerily understated titles as “Pool Party ‘66” to “Sleepy Time ‘98" and an immediate hit is surely inevitable.
Recklessness, however, is a trait that recurringly sets up the doom of horror movie characters - karma always comes roaring back with vengeance, and to ignore pangs of common sense is to die. Recklessness is also the very thing that obstructs Sinister from unmitigated success. Since Ellison’s ego knows no bounds - the fact that he’d risk the lives of his family for fiscal accomplishment is deplorable - he’s an unlikable character, despite a solid portrayal by the dependably solid Hawke. And as Sinister is already far-reaching enough as it is, whether its ludicrousness is brought on by Ellison’s being A-OK with living in a house decked out in snuff films or by the reality that when bumps in the night let themselves be known, no one bothers to turn on the lights, a protagonist without much by way of a conscience is hardly a supplement.
But for all its instances of bad judgment, Sinister is more bloodcurdling than it isn’t - the Super 8 shorts are terrifyingly shot, and as Hawke takes late-night trips to the attic night after night, with only a flashlight in hand, we’re submerged in a kind of dread best exemplified by classics of The Innocents’s state of mind. When a horror film’s output is remarkable enough to inspire one to watch certain events behind their methodically placed hands, endless praise is the next place to go. Shame about its tonal blunders; several brilliant instances could have added up to something but are too individualistic to harmonize. B