Sinister opens with a home video shot of a family of four standing under a large tree limb. They’re wearing execution bags over their heads. Ropes lead from the tree limb around each person’s neck. Nearly off screen, you can see a small arm sawing a larger limb, that breaks and slowly pulls each of the four off the ground.
There’s some swinging and twitching. It’s all quite horrific.
And cold. Stone cold.
Sinister dips delves into the same icy waters of horror as 70s films such as The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Suspiria. Detachment. Cruelty. Death without remorse.
Then the movie lets up off the gas and uses some screen time to build one character effectively: Ethan Hawkes’ Ellison Oswalt (and according to IMDB trivia, the character’s name is a mix of two eclectic, wildly different personalities–Harlan Ellison and Patton Oswalt). There are efforts at giving the two children, a sheriff, Ellison’s wife, and a Deputy So and So (no, really, that’s his given name) some personality, but the efforts fall flat. The children are terrible actors. The sheriff and wife don’t have enough lines, and Deputy So and So exists for the plot and does nothing more than advance things.
If, by some miracle, director Scott Derrickson had built a cast of individuals that provided a modicum of emotional investment, this would have been a terrific movie. Instead, we’re left with a movie that relies too much on shock and jump frights to be scary.
Ellison Oswalt is a crime writer whose better days are behind him. He moves his family into the home of the family we witnessed murdered at the start of the film. He discovers a box containing five homemade snuff videos.
They’re hard to watch. They’re given titles that hint at the horrors. “BBQ ’79.” “Pool Party ’66.” “Sleepy Time ’98.” “Lawn Work ’86.” “Family Hanging Out ’11.” That last one opens the film. Ellison spirals further into madness as he watches each movie. His son, we’re told, is prone to night terrors, and has an incident that is quite chilling. The first half of the film is ominous and almost terrifying.
Then the curse of modern horror films strike. It falls under the weight of its conceit. Ellison notices a mysterious figure in each movie. A little research and he discovers the figure to be a demon named Bughuul. There is a ridiculous scene late in the movie where a group of fake looking demon children play hide-n-seek with Ellison in his dark home that had me laughing. Ellison’s children plays a large role in the last half of the film, and they’re terrible with the material.
To the director’s credit, there is one scene in the attic that had me on the edge of my seat. If only the last half of the movie were that scary…
The movie plays out to the expected steps. The end.
There’s much to enjoy in Sinister. Ethan Hawke was born to play a failed writer (but hey, weren’t most of us?). The home videos are… I’d rather not think about them. It makes me want to hit the whiskey… just like Ellison did… just like so many stereotyped writers have done…
I think most horror fans will enjoy this one enough for me to recommend it.