I had a lot of hope and excitement for Sinister, not because it’s affiliated (however tenuously) with Insidious, a movie I enjoyed despite its many flaws, but because for months before the release the reviews were unusually positive for a horror movie, and the trailer promised a dark, uncompromisingly ugly horror film, leading me to believe this would be right up my alley.
The setup is an intriguing one. A true crime writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t written a bestseller in years. Eager to find the inspiration that will satisfy his ego and justify uprooting his family for the umpteenth time, he buys a house in which the previous family were brutally murdered. With a lot at stake (his wife makes it clear that her faith in him is wearing thin), he begins his investigation almost immediately. He is aided in this by a box of home movies he finds in the attic of the house which are not, as their labels claim, happy family memories at all, but snuff movies depicting the deaths of the various families. And in each movie, there is a symbol and a mysterious presence that seems to be able to leak into Ellison’s world simply by being seen.
This is the concept that got me excited for months before the film’s release. Unfortunately, after about the first forty minutes–and after Ellison’s third time walking around in the dark with a baseball bat–the movie shows its hand, and it’s a curiously restrained and cliched one. Perhaps the problem is one of heightened expectation. The marketing of this film would have you believe it’s a grim and gutsy horror flick in the style of Se7en or 8MM, when in fact, it’s nothing of the kind. Take away the setup, and you’re left with a run-of-the-mill haunted house story, one that’s neither original nor particularly effective and depends on jump-scares and stingers, most of which you’ll already have seen in the trailer. Now there’s nothing wrong with cliche if done right (see The Possession, which doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but still managed to be fun), but Sinister does more wrong than right.
Perhaps the most egregious offense are the curiously ineffective makeup effects. The ghosts could have been made-up using the kind of stuff you’ll find in Wal-Mart at Halloween, and the main villain looks like the guitarist from Slipknot on a bad day. They just weren’t scary. At no point did I feel the kind of dread upon which a movie like this depends. And by the time we get to the end–telegraphed twenty minutes earlier–it all feels kind of ham-handed and rushed, better suited to a Masters of Horror episode than a theatrical release. You should feel shocked, terrified, empathic, tense by the end. Instead you feel nothing.
It’s not all bad, lest it seem as if I’m intent on burying it, and I do suspect it is indeed a problem of heightened expectation. Had I known nothing about Sinister going in, I’d still have been let down by the lack of originality and weak effects (because I’m neither blind nor a newcomer to horror), but I might have had more fun on the journey. The acting, particularly from Hawke, is excellent, even if the script requires him to be little more than a stock horror idiot at times. Refreshingly, the police are not depicted as bumbling idiots. I very much liked Fred Thompson’s turn as the Sheriff who doesn’t appreciate the way Ellison has depicted the police in his books, and James Ransone’s deputy provides some nice comic relief to offset the darkness. There’s also a nice scene between Ellison and his wife (Juliet Rylance) mid-way through the film that’s unexpectedly poignant and well-written. And Vincent D’Onofrio has an effective turn as a college professor (AKA Mr. Exposition) but looks like an actor we’re going to hear dropped dead of a massive heart any day now.
The music too deserves a mention. It’s about the most sinister thing about Sinister and might have been more memorable in a better film. It does more to establish mood than the choreography and sets combined.
Overall, if you’re looking for some standard horror fare this Halloween, you could do worse than Sinister. But if like me, you demand more from your horror, you’ll be disappointed.
- Is New Movie ‘Sinister’ Actually All That Sinister? (contactmusic.com)
- Exclusive: Ethan Hawke Talks Sinister, Remembers Explorers and More (dreadcentral.com)
- ‘Sinister’ Review (screenrant.com)
- ‘Sinister’ is a serious waste of time (sacbee.com)