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 us, or what will easily scare us. The problem is we don’t always realize that being scary 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, because 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 there’s no follow-through. Scott Derrickson‘s (The Day The Earth Stood Still) film 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, the movie’s about true crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke), a former phenom who is desperate for his next hit. So desperate that 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’s 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 town’s 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 somewhere inside Sinister, 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.
Cast: Ethan Hawke as Ellison; Juliet Rylance as Tracy; Clare Foley as Ashley; Michael Hall D’Addario as Trevor; Fred Thompson as the Sherriff; James Ransone as Deputy So and So; Vincent D’Onofrio as Professor Jonas.