Tis the season for horror movies and this year Hollywood has already given us several underwhelming entries into the genre. So along comes “Sinister”, a new supernatural horror thriller that may not break any new ground but fills the need for a fun horror movie experience during the Halloween season. “Sinister” is a small and relatively straightforward horror picture that uses several familiar devices yet is able to keep you a little uneasy in your seat. And even though I was hoping for more I’ve seen a lot worse efforts than this.
It was a nice surprise to see Ethan Hawke starring in this type of picture. He plays the role of a true-crime author named Ellison who moves his family into a new house in a small rural area. We quickly learn that the family who last owned the home were brutally murdered there. We also learn that one child from the family was never found. The murders were unsolved which serve as Ellison’s inspiration for what he hopes will be a can’t-miss best seller. I love how Hawke handles his character. There are several layers to Ellison. He’s deeply concerned that his 15 minutes of fame is up yet he refuses to accept it. His bullheaded insistence on finishing the book blinds him to the toll it’s taking on his children and marriage even as things begin to get really weird around the house.
The weirdness really begins when Ellison finds a box filled with several reels of Super 8 films and a projector in his attic. The films feature several brutal murders of different families in different years including the family killed in his new home. Ellison begins investigating the murders, connecting them In hopes of making a big discovery that would make his book I sure-fire hit. Of course it wouldn’t be a horror movie if everything went as planned. Ellison begins seeing visions, hearing bumps, and grows increasingly unnerved by his findings. But if the current trend in modern horror movies has shown us anything, it’s that you can never assume that things are as they seem.
“Sinister” plays in the sandbox of both psychological and supernatural horror. Even though the trailer gives away too much, there are moments where you wonder if Ellison’s mind is playing tricks on him or if he has unleashed an incredible force of evil. The movie establishes and then keeps the tension amped up as its mystery unfolds. It deals with some tough subject matter and throws some pretty haunting imagery at the audience. Speaking of the imagery, some of the films creepier moments are when Ellison is sitting alone in his home office watching these old films. The darkness, the steady sound of the projector, and the grisly images he’s seeing create a delightfully eerie atmosphere. But this also opens the movie up to some of it’s more conventional approaches.
You can’t help but notice some all-to-familiar devices that “Sinister” milks dry. There are plenty of cheap scares via sudden bursts of loud noises or music. We get the bumps in the attic, the slow walks down long, dark halls, and the very in-fashion creepy kids scenes. In fact, while watching this movie I could’ve kept a checklist of all the things horror fans have seen before. Creepy house with a haunted past? Check! A sometimes head-scratchingly dumb main character? Check! Slamming doors, power outages, a well-timed storm? Check!
But here’s the good news. Despite the well-worn formulas and clichés, “Sinister” still manages to be an entertaining and eventually disturbing horror picture. A large part of it’s success is due to Ethan Hawke’s strong performance and compelling character (despite his sometimes bonehead decisions). I bought into the conflict between his love for his family and his desire to write another bestseller as well as the repercussions that his clouded judgment brings on them all. But more importantly “Sinister” works because there is a genuine sense of unease to everything you’re seeing. And while it does require the audience to wait a while for things to unfold, the ending is frighteningly satisfying.
As I mentioned earlier, “Sinister” doesn’t break any new ground in the horror genre. It depends on several of the same techniques that we’ve seen over and over. But there is some meat to its story and as you get deeper into the film the tension gets higher all the way to the finale which is perfectly fitting for a good horror picture. “Sinister” won’t make anyone’s horror top 10 list. But it maintains its moodiness and delivers in the end. That’s more than I can say about some of Hollywood’s more recent horror efforts.