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Movie Review: Sinister (2012)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Nicholas King, Vincent D'Onofrio
Hoping to recapture the success of his true crime novel “Kentucky Blood” from ten years ago, novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family – – wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) and children Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) – – into a house where the previous family was hung from a giant tree in the back yard. Not too long after moving in, Ellison finds a box of Super 8mm films in the attic detailing the grisly murders of the previous family, as well as a couple of other families from other states. There are a couple of connecting threads with the murders: 1) the youngest child in the family went missing after the massacre, and 2) Ellison spots a creepy figure lurking in the background of the videos. Enlisting the help of an admiring young deputy (James Ransone) and a college professor who specializes in occultism (Vincent D'Onofrio), Ellison learns the creature in the videos is a “child eating” demon named Bughuul (Nicholas King), who possesses....well, best not to spoil too much I guess.
What's Good About the Movie?:
Chris Norr's cinematography is top notch. There are some shots in the film that are chillingly effective. The best shot in the film comes pretty late, where Ellison hears the film projector in the attic, goes to investigate, and stands at the foot of the stairs leading to the attic. From a purely technical stand point, Sinister is a very well done film.
There are a couple of admittedly disturbing moments as well. The movie opens up with Super 8 video footage of four people, two adults and two children, standing under a tree with nooses around their necks and hoods over their heads. An unseen figure saws off a tree limb acting as a counterweight. As the limb falls, the victims are lifted in the air and are strangled to death. It's a grueling, graphic, and disturbing scene, and it starts the movie off on a creepy note. As far as jump scares go, and Sinister has more than its share of them, there is one effective moment involving a lawnmower. That's really all I can say about that.
And while I didn't give a hoot about any of the characters in the film, the actors do their jobs well enough. Ethan Hawke captures his character's mental deterioration over the course of the film well enough, and Juliet Rylance plays the Long Suffering Wife with a degree of competence. Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley are likable as Ellison's children, although they are given next to nothing to do (there are long stretches during the film where they disappear entirely). The best performance, however, is perhaps turned in by James Ransone, who plays a deputy police officer who is star struck by Ellison. He wants to contribute to Ellison's investigation of the house's history so that he can be mentioned in the “acknowledgments” section of Ellison's new book. He scores some of the film's biggest laughs, and is always entertaining to watch.
What's Bad About the Movie?:
While there are a couple of disturbing segments in the film, Sinister is, overall, a crushing bore.
For starters, the movie is just not that scary. After Ellison finds the Super 8mm tapes of the previous murders, which happens almost immediately, the movie plunges into a repetitive and tedious routine. Ellison watches the tapes, and recoils in horror by what he sees. Then he wanders around the house in the dead of night to investigate some strange creaky noise coming from inside the house. Then he watches another tape. Then he hears another creaky noise. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. There does come a point where the movie tries to add a spin to his “investigate the strange noise” shenanigans by showing ghostly children sneaking up behind him and then running off screen as soon as they get too close, but it doesn't work. It's more risible than it is frightening.
Adding insult to injury is the grating musical score, courtesy of Christopher Young. Rare is the horror film where the music is so obstreperous, and calls so much attention to itself, that it literally takes you out of the film. The scenes where Ellison watches the videos are especially obnoxious, but the worst piece of music comes when Ellison finally gets the common sense to tell his wife to get the children and pack up their things. I believe the music in that scene was suppose to add a sense of urgency, but all it did was give me a headache.
Of course, I have liked horror films in the past which weren't very scary, movies like April Fool's Day and the Friday the 13thremake. But what those films lacked in scares they made up for with entertainment value, something that is completely absent in Sinister. A lot of the film consists of Ellison watching the snuff films (which are given sick little joke names like “Family Hanging Out,” “Sleepy Time,” and “Pool Party”), and sometimes re-watching them. Some of them are admittedly creepy and disturbing, but there reaches a point where you start to feel sort of sick inside watching them. This is especially true of the video where we see an entire family duct taped to pool lounge chairs and dragged into a swimming pool (you can even see their feet kicking as they're drowning). I enjoy a good disturbing horror film as much as the next genre fan, especially when the disturbing elements add to the creep factor, but that isn't the case with Sinister. Instead of adding to the creep factor, the movie left me feeling sad and unclean, and when we see the “extended endings” of the snuff films toward the close of the picture, it made me feel really...icky.
Not helping matters is the fact that there is no rooting interest to speak of. Rylance, D'Addario, and Foley are just fine as the other members of the Oswalt clan, but they are given so little screen time that they hardly make an impression. Hawke is also as good as can be expected, but he plays a character who is such a dolt that you lose interest in him almost immediately. For someone who picks up on clues that the police sometimes overlook, he misses a couple of glaring clues that are practically slapping him in the face. This is especially true of one particular piece of information that pretty much telegraphs the film's bleak ending, which Ellison, for some reason, fails to pick up on until it's too late. The fact that the filmmakers try to use this clue for a shock ending makes it seem more insulting, as though they thought we wouldn't pick up on it until then.
And speaking of the ending, Sinister is one of the films that just doesn't know when to fade to black. There is one shot of one character's feet after they say something to Ellison that would have been the perfect place to end it. By then, we already know everything there is to know, and any questions we may have had we could have drawn our own conclusions to. But instead of cutting to black, the movie plods on with more and more explanations. Then, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the very last shot of the film is a cheap “jump scare” the movie just didn't need. It felt cheap and lazy, and should not have been added.
I turned 28 this year, a fact I mention because I'm starting to wonder if I'm getting too cranky as I get older. I had a very bad time watching Sinister, but the audience I saw the movie with seemed to enjoy the heck out of it. Maybe I'm not the right type of horror fan to enjoy a movie like this. There are genre buffs out there who are far more hard core than I. They might love every second of Sinister, might find some universal truths in it (like Dustin Putman from themovieboy.com), and will certainly not find the film as painful to watch as I did.
** out of (****)