The best horror stories and horror movies play on our real-life fears. The Exorcist and Poltergeist work because every parent carries an immense well of fears for the safety of their children. Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre work on our fears of being stranded and in the hands of strangers. The Shining and The Amityville Horror play on our fears over a loved family member turning into our monster. Carrie and Let the Right One In work on our fears of being ostracized and shunned by society. And so on….
Sinister combines traditional storytelling and horror movie motifs with the more recent “found footage” craze to generate a pretty good thriller. The work of writer/director Scott Derrickson, writer C. Robert Cargill and producer Jason Blum, Sinister takes the traditional “haunted house” movie and finds a way to spin it so that the traditional audience question of “Why the hell don’t they just leave?” becomes an omen of ill news.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a failed fiction writer who found success by turning to true crime stories. Even that, however, has turned sour as he has been unable to follow up his initial success with any further literary triumphs. His last few works have tanked, he’s deep in debt and nothing seems to be working. Ellison has turned so desperate that he’s been moving his family – wife Tracy, son Trevor and daughter Ashley – from one town to another, looking for the next unsolved crime that will finally bring him the fame he craves and the fortune he needs to justify all he’s put his family through. This often earns his family the scorn of locals and the ire of the police officers who rarely come out looking well in his books. His latest trick though takes things further. Ellison moves himself and his family into the home where, a year before, the previous owners had been hung from the backyard tree and the youngest daughter went missing. The broken tree branch used to lift the family to their deaths still hangs off the tree in the backyard, an unheeded warning that ought to have gardeners wondering why no one cleared the tree out.
While moving stuff into the attic, Ellison finds a box of 8 MM reels and a camera. It is there that he finds the footage of the family’s grisly murder. And footage of several other murders that span decades and criss-cross the nation. At first, Ellison tries to do the right thing and contact the authorities – and then he notices his big book and stops. He needs the footage. It’s potential evidence of a much bigger and darker pattern of murders that stretch across America and across years. It would make his book a success to have that story. He hangs up the phone and keeps watching the films.
Hawke is the center of the movie and it helps to have someone of his caliber as the fulcrum. You believe the years of hardship that press on Ellison like a vice. When the county Sheriff (Fred Thompson) politely asks him to not move his family in, you understand that Ellison has danced this dance before with other law enforcement leaders who wish he’d just go away. When Tracy presses him on his unwillingness to just forget the book and leave the house, his emotional outburst is not one of a man trapped in a supernatural story, but of a man caught in an economic and existential mess. Ellison has been backed into a corner. He can’t do anything else but this and, if this fails, he will likely lose it all. It’s this terror that spurs him onward, in spite of the growing dread that surrounds him.
The movie does a smart thing to further fuel both the dread and Ellison’s desperation – it leaves him alone. As a writer, he never leaves the house. He only writes, researches on his computer and watches the film footage. His only connection to the outside world are his family, the Deputy Sheriff who idolizes him and the university professor on the occult that he contacts via iChat (an unaccredited Vincent D’Onofrio). Beyond that, it’s just Ellison and that 8 MM camera that keeps spooling horror upon horror at him.
And the 8 MM footage is a great trick. On the one hand, it allows the filmmakers to add to the body count of the film without putting the Oswalts in immediate danger from which they can then miraculously save themselves. On the other hand, the footage increases the dread and the darkness that builds and builds around Ellison. The sound the of the reels spooling becomes the sound of bad things happening. The footage’s sepia tones and old time feeling contrast with the horrific images that they show against Ellison’s office wall. And the more Ellison watches, the more into his mystery he gets – which only seems to increase the tension in his house and with his family. Trevor’s night terrors return with a fury while Ashley begins to paint images of a murder she should not know anything about on the walls of the house…or is it her doing the drawing?? And just what is that odd-faced figure that keeps reappearing in the films?
The movie does have plenty of jump scares. Let me be honest about that. But the jump scares work because the film does a great job of building that sense of inevitable dread. What doesn’t work as well though are some of the bigger horror moments. (Without spoiling anything, let’s just say I kept wondering when kids entered The Matrix and leave it at that). The end does feel a bit anticlimactic, but that’s just because, by then, you know where this story is headed. The movie does feel like it can lead to a series of further sequels. Here’s hoping that they do add to the mythos without it devolving like so many of the modern horror series. If anything, they can build on the “Mr. Boogie” monster and find a way to explain why he looks like Slipknot’s bassist.
Is Sinister a perfect movie? No. But it’s a good horror movie. It’s the kind of movie you want to see this time of year, in a packed theater, with your friends. It’ll make people jump out of their seats and then, when they’re home at night, start wondering just what the hell that noise is in the attic. Here’s hoping it’s not a camera running. And if you ever move into a new house and find a box of old film up there, don’t be nosy and just chuck it in the garbage. Or you might regret what you see there.