Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Vincent D'Onofrio, Fred Dalton Thompson, Clare Foley, Victoria Leigh, Juliet Rylance
SINISTER MOVIE TRAILER WATCH
Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.
Why is it so hard to make an effective horror movie? Shouldn't we know what it is that scares people? What scares us? Actually, we know exactly what scares, or what will easily scare us. The problem is we don't always realize that isn't the same thing as being horrific. Someone jumping out from behind a door is scary; the Holocaust is horrific. One of those will create a real reaction; the other won't but it's safer so we go for it.
Which is how we get something like "Sinister" – safe horror. Like a slasher movie it does what it knows will work and not much more. Actually that's not fair, there is a hint of trying to put some real effort and thought into the characters, making us care about what happens to them but no follow through. Scott Derrickson's ("The Day The Earth Stood Still") ends up being like so many horror films, heavy on mood but with no real story to tell, providing a lot of padding as an alternative.
Nominally it's about true crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke), a former phenom who is desperate for his next hit. So desperate he has moved his wife and two children into the home of a family who were hung in their own backyard in order to tell a true story of suburban terror. Ellison gets more than he ever hoped for when he discovers a box of home movies in the attic revealing a string of families killed in their homes over 60 years.
What it's really about, more often than not, is Ethan Hawke staring at a screen in horror as Derrickson tries to incorporate some 'found footage' motifs into his … I don't want to be mean and say cliché so let's go with traditional. His traditional horror movie.
That actually works far better than it sounds like it should as Hawke is well up to the task of portraying a man witnessing horrific actions and the toll it takes on his soul. It's a good thing he is up to the task, as he has to carry nearly every minute of "Sinister" particularly as it goes along and he spends more and more time in his office watching the screen, or crawling through the attic with a bat.
Unfortunately those are not "Sinister's" best moments. It's working at its peak when Hawke has actual human beings to play off of, particularly the towns starstruck deputy (James Ransone) who wants to help Ellison's research. Or his unfortunate wife (Juliet Rylance) who doesn't yet know where they have moved. Writer C. Robert Cargill has a real flair for interpersonal dialogue and his exchanges show wit. It's also well-shot in a contrasty Carvaggio style that makes even the daytime gloomy and sad.
But it's all lost on Derrickson's film, which is more interested in building dread, but not sure how to do it, or where to take it. Despite some nicely conducted scenes of tension no one seems to know what to do with them or the characters involved. When will Ellison give up his quest for fame. Are his son's recurrent night terrors a reaction to living in the strange house? Will we ever find the answers to these questions and more? Yes, but by the time we do we won't care.
For everything it does right, "Sinister" just can't get away from the fact it is about a man watching movies in his office and there's little inherently scary about that, however disturbing the images. Worse, when the film does get away from its super 8 projector it reveals an extremely formulaic plot about demons which gets sillier the more it is explained.
There's a good movie inside "Sinister" somewhere but it's trapped within an extremely complacent film made by people who obviously know what makes for good horror, but don't want to risk making any.