The formula for Sinister, this year’s biggest haunted house horror that doesn’t have the words “Paranormal” and “Activity” and the number 4 in the title, is about as simple to figure out as any in recent memory. Insidious + The Ring = Sinister. By those mathematical parameters (and lowered expectations in the case of the latter half of that equation), Sinister isn’t terrible, but rather just rote and by-the-numbers. There’s some twists, some jump scares that can be seen coming from miles away, a little bit of comedic relief, and it’s very well shot, but there’s absolutely nothing about this movie that hasn’t been done better and quite often elsewhere.
True Crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t had a hit novel in over a decade when he dropped the book that made him famous. He’s shuffled around the country with his family, almost universally hated by all law enforcement officers for his portrayal of them as crooked boobs more often than not, and searching for the latest grisly crime scene to make his next dollar off of. Now in small town Pennsylvania, Ellison has settled his clan into a house where all the former residents were hung from a tree in the backyard except for the youngest daughter who went missing.
Naturally the deeper Ellison looks into the story, the spookier things get. A mysterious box in the attic labelled “Home Movies” amounts to a collection of familial Super 8 snuff films from around the country with different scenarios and cutsey titles applied to each that says how everyone will die in them (i.e. “Pool Party” and “Lawn Work”). Then his kids start acting creepy, he starts hitting the bottle, he starts seeing things that aren’t really there, etc., etc., etc., repeat until fairly obvious twist ending.
There are some things to give credit to in Sinister. It doesn’t tip its hat to the true nature of the crimes until later on when a cameoing Vincent D’Onofrio literally Skypes in his entire performance to add some clarity to the proceedings. Hawke is quite good in the lead as a burnt out writer, and his scenes with his wife (relative newcomer Juliet Rylance) make up the best scenes of marital strife in any recent horror film. There’s some great support from James Ransone as a local deputy who wants to help Ellison, but who constantly questions why he hasn’t left the house if things have gotten so crazy. Even director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) manages to create a decently atmospheric and tense mood by very rarely leaving the house for Ellison and the audience to catch their breath.
Beyond that, however, this one’s completely humdrum. The jump scares aren’t scary, relying on the same creepy kids, lurking demons, and damning photographic evidence that has become so rote and cliché now that it never fully registers as anything other than forced here. Once the film seemingly makes its ghost story literal, it loses all hope of really being interesting again in spite of its better elements. The script also manages to just simply forget about characters in hopes that the viewer will see them as red herrings by way of omission, but by not reminding us that they are there (especially by forgetting that Ellison has two kids instead of just one for an unconscionably long time) we can’t be asked to care when the ending has been made so blatantly obvious right off the bat.
There isn’t anything particularly shocking about Sinister aside from how drab it all feels in spite of its stylish sheen. There’s a pretty good gag at the end, but if you think about it (or more specifically about the dynamics of how Super 8 film actually works) it will take you right out of the film. Then again, with its third act Amityville styled posturing, nothing in this film was designed to make a lick of sense. It’s just trying to goose the audience, and on its own terms, that might be the most unforgivable cliché of the lot of them.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Top image: A scene from Sinister. Courtesy Alliance Films.