Sinister Directed by: Scott Derrickson Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, James Ransone Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins Rating: R Release Date: Oct 12, 2012
PLOT: A true-crime author's (Hawke) obsession with a family's gruesome murder case is heightened by his discovery of film reels that show other frightening events.
WHO'S IT FOR? If you're on the hunt for a movie with truly scary moments, you've found it with Sinister. This is one that dares those who have been exhausted by softball mainstream horror to see if they can keep a straight, non-terrified facial expression throughout.
EXPECTATIONS: Aware that this was co-written by film critic C. Robert Cargill, I was curious as to what relation this movie might have with filmgoing. Would it be like a more serious version of The Cabin in the Woods? And for the record, this is one movie I opted out of seeing at a surprise midnight screening back at SXSW back in March. Was finally seeing this movie going to confirm to me that I had made the right decision of not seeing this on a lonely midnight?
Ethan Hawke as Ellison: Carrying much of the story on his shoulders, Hawke is a fine fit for this part, it's just the character that is in desperate need of a few touch-ups. The obsessive type that ventures into his investigation no matter what creepy stuff happens, this becomes a ditzy character of sorts, who is given non-believable motivations as to why he'd keep pursuing certain bumps in the night (or eventually, this case in general). Though his questionable pride/stupidity does allow the movie to have scary sequences, it certainly doesn't allow us to take this character seriously as his actions become his unreasonable, his pride lowered to a level that is of enabling simply stupid choices. The movie's reasoning for such a hazardous obsession with the material is simply not enough Sinister and its lead character would benefit more if this audience surrogate weren't so classically ditzy. Score: 5
Vincent D'Onofrio as Professor Jonas: Though his involvement with the movie is small, D'Onofrio is certainly used to fill in parts of the story's mystery with some goofy glue. His final inclusion in the story is a perfect example of wrong timing, in a manner that is nearly laughable. It's just another component that confirms this script has no shame in calling in a goofy cliche, especially if it is to service the attempted completion of the story, even though this character is pretty useless in general (and I'm sure books with the same knowledge he has do exist). Score: 4
TALKING: The best interactions in the film are those between Ellison and the town cops, as usually written with sharp banter that can also provide a little daylight comic relief. Later in the film, however, the movie admits to Ellison's non-believable obsession with such dangerous material when "Deputy So and So" (Ransone) essentially says, "How can you even live in this house?" This disbelief is not so much funny, but true. Score: 5
SIGHTS: As far as opening shots for horror movies go, you probably can't get any more eerie than the first scene of this movie. The other scenes in Sinister that make use of the Super 8/found footage angle stand out as more purely scary than anything that happens in the movie's immediate physical environment. Whereas the physical shenanigans of the movie usually make for creaky imagery, their pop-out scares can come with predictable timing. Score: 7
SOUNDS: In an odd choice, Sinister adds selective music tracks and bits of sound design to accompany the film reels when they are first viewed by Hawke, giving the strange illusion that they are spiritual soundtracks to the home movies (the music even cuts off with the film). In some ways this feels unnecessary, both in regards to the unbearable tension already in place visually, and because it directly goes against the naturalness of cold-witnessing such footage. It's a choice that feels as if the movie is too stubborn to accept the idea that Super 8 films only record visual content, and not audio content. But to director Derrickson's credit, he succeeds in finding an unsettling nature in atmospheric electronica music by the likes of Boards of Canada, or Accurst. Score: 5
BEST SCENE: The scariest moment in Sinister was definitely the lawn mower sequence. Yikes.
ENDING: After a fake ending or two, Sinister concludes on an unnecessary final frame. And when I say unnecessary, I mean that we didn't need one more pop in by Dr. Boogie.
QUESTIONS: Why doesn't Ellison look at all of the film reels together at once, instead of one at a time? Is the movie assuming that Ashley saw the ghost in the original house, and now she is possessed? What kid decided that Mr. Boogie should be the title given to the monster, and was it a rule that others had to follow suit? Does this mean that in earlier times, this monster was referred to as Lord Boogie, or Monsieur Boogie? What terror tactics was Senor Boogie using to terrorize kids in earlier days, and does this mean that if there is a sequel he will be scaring people with text messages? Does the recurring presence of Super 8 cameras mean that Sir Boogie is a cinematic purist, and that he would ironically look down upon Sinister being shot on digital? How did Stephanie pioneer a hanging tree like that? I can believe the logistics behind the other murders, but not so much that elaborate tree thing. I am a grown man and that would probably take me a week to set up. And by then, I'm sure I would have gotten caught by the neighbors. Ugh. And what's with these goofy ghouls in recent horror movies? Insidious had Darth Maul, and now Sinister has that guitarist from Hot Topic metal band Slipknot. Mr. Boogaloo was much scarier as a reflection in the water.
REWATCHABILITY: Not very likely. I know when and what the scares are in this movie, and since many of the images are not likely to be completely forgotten, a second look at this stuff has basically been rendered unnecessary. This would certainly be a fun horror movie to share with friends, but it would probably cause me to make suspiciously long bathroom trips.
Sometimes painfully spooky but ultimately imperfect, Sinister demonstrates great control of its horror powers in the beginning. It portions out its scares to cold presentations of freaky voyeurism that create a seductive mystery, all while using chilling crime scene visuals that disturb without having to spray a couple blood packets all over the walls. However, that happens more or less by the end of the movie, as the script succumbs to its desire to utilize these lively tropes, and disappointingly doesn't bother to put them to interesting use (despite the incredible promise shown in the film's first two heart attack acts). This giddy usage of jump scares and story elements that go beyond crime scenes makes for an underwhelming overall explanation for the film's best attribute — those "home movies" — and notably lowers the haunting potential intended for its most labored sequences. That stuff on the film reels, though - that's filmmaking for nightmares.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10