True crime writer Ellison Oswalt has moved his family into a house where the previous family were hung in the backyard. This is how he plans to do research for his next book. When his wife finds out about the history of the house, she justifiably freaks out. The family didn’t die in the house he assures her, they died in the backyard.
I would be more concerned that none of the lights in the house seem to work properly. Perhaps it’s bad wiring. The Oswalts are living in the darkest house in human history. Even during the day the house is incredibly dark. So dark in fact that there children seem to be having trouble finding their way around. Their daughter can’t find the bathroom and their son can’t find his bed, so he elects to sleep in cardboard boxes and the bushes instead.
Sinister is a creepy movie with a lot of good jump scares. It has a lot of atmosphere and the 8mm found footage is used to great effect. The 8mm scenes are true show stoppers. The one with the lawnmower is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a shame that the story backing it couldn’t be a little more interesting.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who hit it big with a book called Kentucky Blood. He has tried to repeat the success but has come up short with his follow up books. He hopes that moving into a house where a family was hung from a tree will give him the material he needs for one more big hit. Above all, Ellison is a complete shithead. Hawke plays him beautifully but you spend most of the movie wanting him to die horribly. He’s selfish, a terrible husband and a lousy father. These are not necessarily deal breakers when it comes to main characters in the horror genre, but the film offers no redeemable qualities for him. He’s just an incredible asshole who only thinks of himself, even at the clear expense of his family.
Once again, that’s not a problem itself but his family are barely characters. Watching the film, the audience could be forgiven for forgetting that he has a son until he and his wife find him in the bushes. The daughter is typically cute and precious, with a big sign hanging from her neck that reads ‘IN DANGER’. The wife is standard issue Model Nagging Spouse. The movie introduces characters and then forgets about them. Vincent D’Onofrio even cameos as Professor Exposition via Skype.
The problem with Ellison’s family is the writers are showing their work. Showing your work is great for math but bad for writing. The family exists merely to be in peril by the movie’s supernatural villain Mr. Boogie. There is no other reason for them to exist in the movie. Most of the screen time is devoted to Hawke wondering around the house in the dark while things go bump in the night. For the majority of the movie the family is either asleep or out running errands. Cut the family from the movie and little will be lost except for the ending, which is predictable but also the logical one. The inclusion of the family in peril is meant to give the movie more tension, but the tension is lost when you know exactly how it is going to play out. The real tension in the film is the mystery in the 8mm footage and the secrets it holds. The entire film should be driven by Ellison’s investigation but constantly gets interrupted by the family. The other problem with the film is Mr. Boogie.
Mr. Boogie is a Babylonian deity who lives in images and eats children. Mr. Boogie also seems to be a believer in the superiority of film over digital. The havoc he could wreak with an iPhone and the internet must be tempting, but he sticks with 8mm. He may be an evil Babylonian, child eating god but he has style. He exists as a marketing device, an image to build a franchise around. Like the family, his inclusion into the story is largely unnecessary. A story about a true crime writer who finds a haunted box of 8mm murder films has limitless possibilities. A story about an evil god who kills families and leaves one child alive for dinner limits the possible endings down to one or two. One: he kills the family and eats the child. Two: he doesn’t. Once the film shows its hand there is only one way it could possibly end and that is exactly what we get.
Despite all of its narrative problems, Sinister works as a spooky movie. There are a number of good jump scares in it and the film does a good job of being creepy. Jump scares are largely an technical exercise. The film’s technique is good, but its narrative failings hold it back from being a classic or even memorable horror film. The Possession was a much stronger film on all fronts as was Insidious. Those two films managed to generate their tension and scares in houses that had working lights.
With The Possession, Insidious and the Woman in Black, there seems to be a movement in horror that is moving the genre back to its roots of style and atmosphere. Sinister is a part of this movement, although it is not as successful as those three films. Still, Sinister is more than welcome. The era of torture porn is finally coming to a merciful end. While filled with narrative problems and an unlikable shithead for a main character, it does deliver on tension and jump scares. It won’t redefine the genre but its just good enough to check out.
I rate this film as Recommended.