The fixed, grainy Super 8 shot that opens Sinister is one of its most unsettling. Two children and their parents stand next to a tree, hessian bags over their heads, hands fastened behind their backs and a noose tied lame around each of their necks. From the top of screen an unseen person saws through a tree branch, felling the limb and thus creating a counter-weight by which to hang the family. The camera holds as the four die.
This disturbing moment marks the supernatural thriller’s creative peak, as writer and director Scott Derrickson submerges the potentially frightening and interesting plot into a quagmire of clumsily handled cliches.
Ellison Oswalt, played by an emotionally invested Ethan Hawke, is a true crime writer who has struggled for ten years to pen another hit after his breakthrough book Kentucky Blood.
We meet Ellison and his family – wife Tracy, daughter Ashley and son Trevor – as they’re moving into a new home. This isn’t the first time they have been uprooted to be closer to the location of the subject for Ellison’s next potential best-seller. But the writer has not told his family that they have moved into the home of a family that were hung from a tree in their backyard.
Ellison finds a mysterious box of old Super 8 movies in the attic of the home and promptly watches them. While each film begins with the innocent depiction of a family hanging out together, the footage always ends in their gruesome murder. Upon closer inspection, Ellison spies in each film a creepy looking figure who he learns is named “Mr. Boogie”.
After a superbly handled, atmospheric set-up, Sinister simmers in the guise of a murder mystery, with Ellison piecing together what he believes to be the macabre efforts of a serial killer who has been taping the execution of his victims. But after the first few supernatural scares, its apparent that there is a more demonic force at work.
Hawke imbibes his character with a self-centred petulance. Ellison, despite arguing that his interest in true crime is “driven by a sense of injustice”, is, in fact, yearning for the fame and money that came with the publication of Kentucky Blood. “This could be my In Cold Blood,” he enthuses, as his wife pleads with him to acknowledge that his family are unhappy in their new home.
Ellison’s blind obsession to become relevant again, mixed with the mystery behind the murders on the 8mm snuff movies, could have made an enticing and complex exploration for Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay. But they don’t want that. Instead, they want Sinister to be a clever construct full of jump-out-of-your-seat scares.
The film teases you in, making the audience think that there might be an original development just around the corner. But haven’t we seen this all before? Isn’t Sinister basically the same plot as The Ring? Yes, it is. Cargill apparently had the idea for Sinister after a nightmare he suffered in the wake of watching The Ring. So in Sinister we encounter familiar elements: creepy children, grotesque “found footage”, bumps in the night and a pattern of terror.
Some horror fans are willing to forgive cliches if they pass as homage. But here the writers do not bring enough fresh ideas to the table to overcome or transcend blatantly rehashed imagery.
By manipulating the plot to adhere to their over-arching concept, the writers allow contrivances and cliche to diminish the impact of their movie. Rather than the film’s chilling forces, both human and otherwise, lingering with you after the final credits, you ultimately feel like someone tried – and failed – to play a prank on you.
What is most puzzling, is that the movie’s big climactic reveal is seemingly what the audience is supposed to assume from the very beginning. The obviousness of Sinister‘s twist is the final nail in its coffin.
It’s a shame, because there are so many quality ingredients at the filmmakers’ disposal. Both Hawke and Juliet Rylance, who plays Tracy, make their characters believable and very real. You buy into their marriage. It’s also worth noting that last year, when Sinister was released theatrically, it had been 11 years since the publishing of Hawke’s second novel Ash Wednesday. He is yet to have a third book printed, so perhaps personal motivations and frustrations explain the conviction in his performance. Hawke also plays a novelist in the Before Sunrise films. Coincidence?
The child actors – Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley – are both effective, given their limited screen time. Treme‘s James Ransone has an enigmatic presence as policeman “Deputy So and So” and there’s even a few welcome appearances by an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio.
Visually, there are some memorable moments. The “lawnmower scene”, while predictable, is utterly shocking. But despite the tortuous scares derived from the grainy Super 8 footage, once the nature of the plot is exposed in the third act, all tension drains from the movie.
Sinister could have been a beautiful homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or explored male obsession in a similar vein to Sean Penn’s The Pledge. But Derrickson, who also gave us the incredibly impressive The Exorcism of Emily Rose, ultimately decides that it’s more interesting to create a horror movie villain that has the chops to kickstart a new film franchise. He would also prefer to construct an overtly gimmicky ending.
Sinister‘s most gruesome act is the murder of its own grand potential.
Two-and-a-half stars out of five.