Cheap Thrills And Prolonged Mysteries Do Not Equal Genuine Scares
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
For a film that's been labeled "one of the scariest movies of the year," Sinister is surprisingly bland, offering a few jolting moments and some twisted home movies, making it a major disappointment especially during the month of Halloween.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer with a reputation for aggravating local police officers in his efforts to solve cases. He's moved his wife, Tracy, (Juliet Rylance) and two children, Trevor and Ashley (Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley), into a house where every member of a family except a little girl named Stephanie was killed. (Sinister's opening Super 8 movie reveals that the family was hung from a tree, with an unseen figure causing their demise.) And because lying to one's wife is always a good idea, Ellison hides this minor detail from Tracy. As Ellison assembles the pieces of this tragedy - photos, crime reports and the like - he becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to find Stephanie. He hears noises coming from the attic, which eventually reveals a box full of Super 8 movies, each of them portraying another slaughter of another unlucky family. A child is missing from each family, leading to a pattern among all of the murders, adding to Ellison's disturbing desire to solve all of these cases at the expense of alienating his family.
The best parts of Sinister are these Super 8 snuff movies, inventive in their style, hauntingly disturbing, and well made. What takes away from the film is that it tries to be frightening when it's actually more interesting as a mystery. There are parts of the movie that drag, courtesy of screenwriters C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson relishing in keeping the mystery going as long as they can, and the film suffers for it. Maybe it's because of the marketing and the opinions I heard from friends and family members saying that Sinister was terrifying, I'll grant you that. But in looking at the movie for what it is, it's just too slow and not at all scary.
The intriguing aspect to it, however, is its portrait of a writer struggling to remain relevant. Sinister gives us as surprisingly detailed look into Ellison's life of solving mysteries. Its success is in showing us that Ellison is quite good at his job, and if anyone can solve what has happened to these children, it's him. There are plenty of movies out there about writers and their process, but I think Sinister offers something new in it's portrayal of a writer's obsession, and how difficult it is to let go of that obsession even after a crime is solved. Hawke does an admirable job conveying that struggle, making him a rarity of typical horror films - a lead character we actually root for.
The other minor detail that Sinister has going for it is the two scenes that feature Vincent D'Onofrio as Professor Jonas, the expert in the occult who helps Ellison with his plight. If ever a film needs exposition, especially dealing with pagan deities, D'Onofrio is the man for the job. He shows up late in the story, but gives the film the juice it needs to finally wrap up. Too bad he's not enough to save the film from its own wearisome mystery.