IN A NUTSHELL
Ethan Hawke is Elliot Oswalt, a true crime writer who's career has hit the skids. Looking for the grist to inspire a new bestseller, he moves his family into a house that was the scene of a grisly quadruple murder. Not long after he discovers a cache of Super-8 home movies in the attic which turns out to be a series of snuff films made by the killer. After a series of seemingly-disparate homicides start to knit together, Elliot begins to realize that there's more to these horrendous crimes then just the sick whims of a deranged serial killer.
IN THE WHEELHOUSE
Slasher fans, hardcore gore-hounds and torture porn freaks will probably find Sinister a bit too pedestrian. But for discriminating horror fans who dig good characterization, a decent story, fine acting, suspense, tons of atmos-fear and some bonafide shocks will all be predisposed to this one.
- The movie snags your attention right out of the gate with some grainy Super-8 footage of four people standing next to a tree with hoods and nooses around their necks. A shadowy figure emerges from the underbrush and starts to saw through one of the bigger branches, creating a counterweight that hauls them into the air. The camera lingers dead-eyed on this as the victims kick and thrash until they're dead. It's a truly horrific grabber that ensures that you'll either press "STAHP" on your Blue-Ray remote or keep watching right until the very end.
- Even though Elliot does does some truly heinous things, Ethan Hawke manages to humanize the guy. As a struggling writer, I know what it's like to have circumstances threaten to take away your sole raison d'être. But Elliot has more pressing concerns, like a frazzled wife, a sensitive daughter and a son with behavioral issues. By ignoring all of this, the character starts to drift into "irredeemable asshole territory", but over the course of one-hundred and ten minutes, Hawke delivers such a nuanced and tortured performance that he actually gets you into his corner.
- Juliet Rylance does a solid job as Elliot's wife Tracy, even though her performance is a tad schizophrenic. As written on the page, Tracy is super-skeptical about Elliot's plan but some of her early line readings are so over-the-top cheerful that she sounds like she's been eating Zoloft like bowls of Captain Crunch. Nevertheless, it's still a good showing, particular when Elliot's true motivations are revealed and the shit hits the fan.
- Both of the kids are also great. Clare Foley plays Ashley, a sensitive, artsy, seven-year-old who mourns the life she was dragged away from and paints on her bedroom wall to assuage her sadness. Even though her character goes though a spectrum of emotional trauma, Foley gives a very measured, disciplined and mature performance. Not once does she come across as whiny or irritating. As her older brother Trevor, Michael Hall D'Addario doesn't get as much screen time but he's just as convincing, serving up one particularly freaky and memorable moment that will probably stay with you long after the film is over. In every scene they share together, Foley and D'Addario feel a real brother and sister duo, bickering and picking at one another mercilessly.
- In addition to Ethan Hawke's seamless performance, screenwriters C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson go out of their way to make what could have been a preposterous plot feel plausible. Since were told that Elliot's last few books completely tanked, we know that he's really desperate for a hit. This certainly doesn't excuse him for secretly moving his family into a macabre crime scene but it does give him a solid, if somewhat sketchy, motivation. He also redeems himself in our eyes somewhat when he seeks to determine what happened to Stephanie, the little girl who went missing after her family was murdered. Not only does this deepen the mystery of the film, it also gives Elliot a slightly more noble excuse to do what he does.
- Just when the film threatens to unspool as yet another color-by-numbers true crime thriller, Derrickson and Cargill start throwing curve-balls at us. The first one, which is the discovery of the Super-8 films, immediately cranks the Creep-O-Meter up to eleven and then breaks the knob off. Between the use of scratchy and grainy "film stock", hand-held P.O.V.'s, vintage color timing and effective lighting, every one of these segments comes off as uncomfortably authentic. "Lawn Work '86" alone scared the ever-lovin' fertilizer outta me.
- When Elliot digitally imports the Super-8 films he starts to get glimpses of the killer. Throw in a few creepy drawings and a weird pagan symbol that pops up from time to time and you have the makings of a new modern horror villain that never lapses into parody.
- All of this ritualized stuff inspires Elliot to Skype with a local professor named Jonas, played by the consistently-awesome Vincent D'Onofrio. In so many horror movies, the "lore-delivery expert" has a tendency to over-dramatize their exposition but not D'Onofrio. Even though he's only seen on a computer monitor, D'Onofrio makes a great impression with his scholarly appearance, matter-of-fact deliveries and unique mannerisms. It's a brief but memorable appearance. Related to this, James Ransone is also solid as "Deputy So & So", a slavish fan of Elliot who digs up some pertinent facts about the case. Ransone's performance is so intense and awkward that he acts as a walking, talking red herring throughout the entire film.
- Director Scott Derrickson manages to wring a ton of suspense out of the last third of the film. Whenever that damned movie projector turns on by itself and Ethan Hawke starts creeping around the house with a baseball bat I'm immediately on pins and needles.
- Veteran genre music maestro Christopher Young serves up an audio palette of exceptional quality. His compositions are so unique, discordant and unnerving that they really do escalate the dramatic impact of the on-screen heebie-jeebies.
- How many horror movies have seen where the family stubbornly refuses to abandon their new house even though something really evil is clearly squatting there? in sinister, that cliche is set completely on its ear. At one point, Elliot sees something that freaks him out so badly that he wakes his family up in the middle of the night, piles them into the car and gets the fuck outta Dodge. Not only does this redeem the character in the eyes of the audience but it also gives Derrickson and Cargill an opportunity to completely fuck with our expectations.
- The movie's entire premise is predicated on the fact that Elliot willingly and surreptitiously moves his entire family into a house with more collective bad karma then the Overlook Hotel. As if that wasn't bad enough, he discovers and then systematically watches all of the snuff films and then proceeds to sit on them for the rest of the movie. Yeah, I get it that he thinks the movies can be parleyed into a bestselling book, but shouldn't a crime novelist know the repercussion of withholding evidence? If that was me, I would have put on the first reel, watched about two seconds of it, shouted "NOPE" loud enough for the neighbors to hear me, packed it all up, brought it right down to the police, moved out of the house that same night and then nuked the entire site from orbit, just to be safe. Actually, who's kidding who, I would never have moved into that house the first place. Sure, this would have made for a very short film, but also a much less infuriating one.
- Periodically I felt myself getting hooked up on things that just didn't make any sense. For example, Elliot clearly took great pains to omit the dark history of their new home but then he goes and sends his kids to public school. Did he seriously think that the local school kids wouldn't tell Ashley and Trevor all about their creepy new digs?
- As the movie transitions from true crime mystery to something more supernatural, credibility gets strained more and more. Mercifully, between the sure-handed conviction of the director and Ethan Hawke's litmus-test performance, I just kinda went with it. Having said that, when the final mystery is revealed I had to fight the overwhelming impulse to roll my eyes. Just the physical limitations of what's proposed is so improbable that it threatens to undermine the whole edifice. Thankfully the movie overall is executed so damned well that I was willing to forgive some of the more grievous assaults on logic.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sinister is a slick, stylish, taut, well-acted and reasonably-original horror movie. Yes, things get increasingly improbable towards the finale but there's nothing nearly as goofy on display here as the Poltergeist / Nightmare on Elm Street rip-offs which completely sunk Insidious for me.
In a horror movie landscape dominated by shitty remakes and boring found footage schlock I feel downright churlish criticizing something that at least tries to do something different. Sinister isn't perfect but you get the distinct impression that the cast and crew actually give a damn and went out of their way to deliver the goods.