Film Review – Sinister
The opening credits sequence of Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is so haunting and disquieting you may find yourself questioning whether or not the film can maintain that level of tension. The images on display set the bar for what is to come, and I’m both excited and terrified to report that, minus a couple of missteps in its closing moments, the film remains effectively creepy throughout.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer chasing the success of a best-selling novel he penned ten years prior. He uproots his wife (Juliet Rylance) and children (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) from their comfy home lives to get closer to the crime scene location of his most recent subject. How close? Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, he’s moved them into the very house in which a series of grisly murders occurred.
A box of 8mm film reels labeled as home movies mysteriously appears in the attic, and Ellison begins studying them. The content captured on these reels is highly disturbing and sends him running for whiskey and answers. It seems the sadistic murders that took place in the home were just one event in a series, all of which were filmed by an unknown bystander. That, in addition to background images of an otherworldly figure, convinces Ellison he’s onto the story of a lifetime, if only he can maintain his sanity long enough to collect the necessary evidence and write about it.
Ellison’s selfish want to cash in on his findings initially allows him to overlook the toll it’s taking on his family. As he continues to seclude himself and fixate on the films, his behavior becomes more and more erratic, understandably upsetting his wife. His son suffers from night terrors, an ailment that was treated and only cropped back up since the move. His artistic young daughter begins visualizing and drawing graphic depictions of the murders she couldn’t possibly know the details of. His only true supporter is a star-struck local deputy (James Ransone) longing for an acknowledgment in the eventual book.
Sinister is, at its core, a haunted house movie. Its restrained approach helps to ratchet up the tension right from the get-go and it mostly (and admirably) avoids the pitfalls of cheap fake-outs and jump scares. Combine this with a truly unsettling score by Christopher Young and what you have is a uniquely jarring and fun little horror flick. Ransone’s deputy character injects some much-welcomed humor and Vincent D’Onofrio is clearly having a blast as the Skyped-in professor Ellison has enlisted to explain possible ritualistic or mythological connections to the murders.
Only when the myriad of explanations were thrown about and inevitable twists occurred did Sinister start to lose me. It becomes too bogged down with the specifics of the aforementioned (and, frankly, lackluster) mythological findings to provide a truly satisfying conclusion, and the sudden outpouring of exposition becomes a little grating. The direction of the two or three final scenes seem comparatively muddled and the “GOTCHA!” scare tactics the film was so careful to avoid are suddenly deployed, with waning effects.
Don’t let any of this dissuade you, though. The film garnered enough goodwill and produced enough genuine scares that I was easily able to overlook any small flaws evident towards the end. And while it might strike some as odd casting (as it did me), Ethan Hawke’s performance here is truly inspired. As the movie’s centerpiece, he doesn’t once stop short or wink at the camera. Horror movies on a budget this size can range wildly in quality, so I’m pleased to report Sinister is one of the good ‘uns.
Final Grade: B