I absolutely love horror movies. Something about testing my mettle against Hollywood’s attempts to induce fright has always been too enticing to resist. The problem is that, nowadays, it’s more about seeing whether or not Hollywood can even put something out that gets me on edge anymore. Over time, I’ve realized that I get more frightened when a movie has me really wound up; if the film can build enough suspense over time and finish strong, I’ll be pretty convinced of its power to scare. Because of this, I tend to enjoy the Paranormal Activity movies. Sure, the endings aren’t always the gut punch I want, and the sequels have gone for cheaper scares than the original, but they’re all pretty good at building up to the terror. For me, the build up is what makes those movies. What drew me to Sinister, however, was its interesting premise. Is an interesting premise enough to make this a good horror movie, though?
True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt has just moved his family into a house that was previously owned by a family that was murdered in the backyard, and whose daughter has been missing in wake of the incident. He does this to investigate the murder and disappearance, hoping to catch lightning like he did with his first novel. Driven by a need to be famous and relevant again, Ellison doesn’t reveal to his wife just how close to the crime scene he has brought them. After receiving a not-so-warm welcome from the local sheriff, Ellison begins investigating the murders in earnest. When he stumbles upon a set of Super 8 home movies in the attic of the new house, the true nature of the case is revealed, and Ellison starts on an obsessive downward spiral to learn the truth.
This movie would not have been nearly as effective if it weren’t for the always-dependable Ethan Hawke in the lead role. Hawke gives Ellison a lot of depth, revealing that his drastic measures of moving into the same house as a murder are fueled largely by selfish reasons. Namely, he wants to write a book that will make him rich and famous again. As the investigation begins to weigh down on him, however, Ellison realizes how materialistic his intentions have been and how he needs to protect himself and his family. Beyond this fairly fleshed out character development, Hawke also does a great job conveying how obsessed Ellison gets with the investigation. Much like the viewer, Ellison is disgusted by everything he uncovers, but simply can’t turn his eyes away. This leads to some interesting writing choices, but Hawke mostly pulls it off. His on-screen fear is palpable, and it’s easy to get uneasy just by connecting with his performance. Overall, Hawke does a really solid job in this horror role.
There are only a few other roles in the movie, and none of them get nearly the amount of screen time as Hawke, so I viewed them all in a supporting capacity. Juliet Rylance does a solid job as Ellison’s wife, starting off extremely supportive yet wary of her husband’s need to be successful again. Over the course of the movie, she goes on a similar downward spiral as her husband, though more as a result of Hawke’s fear and obsession over what he has uncovered. By the end of the movie, she is extremely frightened of her husband’s erratic behavior and is worried about how her children will respond to the grisly nature of Ellison’s profession. Meanwhile, the roles of the children weren’t terribly noteworthy. The son is portrayed as a bit rebellious, but experiences devastating night terrors in their new house. The daughter comes off as fine, but is still perturbed to a certain degree by what is going on around her father and in the house.
James Ransone provides comic relief as “Deputy So-and-So,” a fan of Oswalt’s who is desperate to aid in his investigation and be recognized in the new book in some capacity. Fred Thompson portrays the sheriff as having his feathers ruffled, but he still tries to give Ellison sound advice at the beginning of the film. Finally, Vincent D’Onofrio is a little unconvincing as a professor who Ellison brings on as a consultant. His delivery seemed forced and overall his portrayal of the small role is pretty flat.
Director Scott Derrickson is certainly not out of his depth when it comes to wringing scares from an audience. The frights he sets up aren’t super creative or compelling, but they’re still pretty effective. More so than the outright scares, though, Derrickson has a strong grasp on how to build mood in a horror movie. I’d say this movie gets more points for being creepy throughout than for being in-your-face scary. There are a lot of little touches that convince you that this is a legitimate horror movie, namely the introduction and the direction of the home movies that Ellison watches. His ability to switch between the found footage format of the home movies that Ellison views throughout the film to the traditional format of the rest of Sinister showcases a director who is able to juggle different styles while still making a movie that feels cohesive.
Where Sinister is truly let-down is in its writing. Parts of the writing are great: the introduction scene, the found-footage scenes that Ellison watches alone in his office, and the overall premise of the film just makes it come off as a solid thriller for a while. However, they’re quick to remind you that this isn’t really a thriller; the pent up suspense that I enjoy isn’t present here. In its place are a number of pretty cheap scares. A lot of the scares work, sure, but they don’t exactly feel very earned and simply aren’t very clever or creative given the interesting concept of the film: that there is a demonic being plaguing Ellison that resides in images. Director Derrickson co-wrote the film with C. Robert Cargill, and the two also employ a ton of horror-movie clichés in Sinister, to the point that Ellison comes off as downright stupid in a lot of ways. This can be written off to the fact that he’s obsessed with what’s happening around him and with the investigation, but it comes off as lazy writing in a lot of ways. Sinister’s ending also simply wasn’t as shocking as it could have been, and left me decidedly bored with the movie as a whole.
Music in this film was pretty underwhelming, with nothing that truly helped build a sense of dread during the scarier scenes. Cinematography was a mixed bag, though. The shifting between found footage and regular filming was interesting, and I particularly liked the quick edits employed whenever Ellison was setting up the Super 8 projector. Beyond that, though, nothing truly stuck out at me camera-wise.
So the question is, did Sinister actually get to me and prove that Hollywood has put out a good horror flick? The answer is mostly no, although I would have to say that the movie is decent enough for people who are a little more jittery when it comes to scary movies. I liked a fair amount of the filmmaking and writing choices here, but there was also a lot of stuff that annoyed me, namely some of the silly things the writers made Ellison do. Hopefully I can see Paranormal Activity 4 soon so I can compare the two, but as of right now I’d have to say Sinister is only an okay horror movie. Even then, I might be being a little generous.