A lot better than many of the other horror movie offerings this year!
STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Clare Foley
2012,110 Minutes, Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Sinister uses some solid performances and some chilling imagery to distract us from how many elements of this haunted house story we’ve seen in other films. While some of it is laughable – does no one think to turn on lights while investigating strange noises in the middle of the night? – it does provide some truly creepy horror.
Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson was the perpetrator of the dreadful The Day the Earth Stood Still remake so perhaps this is part of his process of atonement. Here he takes this old plot in some novel directions, finding a new spin on the found footage subgenre while, mercifully, shooting most of the story as a regular movie.
It opens with a truly shocking shot of an entire family being murdered in a grotesque fashion. There’s no blood, but it’s an image that sets the tone for the rest of the film. We then meet Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime writer who had a hit best seller years ago and has been trying to recapture that moment ever since. Without telling his own wife (Juliet Rylance) or children, he has moved them into the house of the slaughtered family as he begins researching the crime.
In the attic he comes across some home movies depicting not only the family he’s researching, but others that have met similar fates. Each time a family was wiped out but one child disappeared, never to be seen again. Meanwhile strange things are happening at the house, and the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, acting again now that his political career is behind him) makes it clear that Ellison will be getting no cooperation from him. However a deputy (James Ransone) keeps providing him with fresh and disturbing information, while a local college professor (an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio in a Skyped cameo) gives us what little explanation we get for what’s going on.
Essentially this is the story of a writer pursuing a project to the point where he’s put his whole family in danger, and we watch to see how it will play out. The presence of an actor of Hawke’s caliber provides his character with some depth. Yes, things still pop out and go Boo! so to speak, but Hawke makes us wonder about Ellison’s motivations. As his wife, British stage actress Juliet Rylance isn’t the engine driving the story but neither is she the clichéd woman screaming every ten minutes. Indeed, her character is trying to keep Ellison grounded in the real world problems of his family as he sinks deeper into the mystery and his booze.
In some ways the film evokes the J-horror films of recent years and even the Italian horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in giving us deeply disturbing images combined with characters that are unable to see how they are shaping their own fates. Sinister also suggests many other horror films from the obsessed writer Jack Torrance from The Shining to the menacing children of The Brood. There’s even a shout out to the devil dog of Cujo. The result isn’t one of the great horror films, but it’s a lot better than many of the other offerings in the genre this year.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.