Director: Scott Derrickson
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
I knew while watching this film that it would be difficult to write a review that does not give anything away. So, let me say up front that the movie is better than this review probably makes it out to be. I have a deep affection for scary movies, but I became virtually impossible to frighten ages ago. Sinister has its creepy moments, disturbing images, and some jolts designed to make an audience jump. As a horror movie, it delivers far better than most American films of the genre released in the last decade. It is a unique entry in the “found footage” catalog of the genre. Ethan Hawke is in nearly every scene and carries the movie on his capable shoulders. The fact that the film works as well as it does is largely due to his solid performance complemented by a generally well-crafted script and able direction.
It has two premises that must eventually meet for its resolution’s sake. First, Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a true-crime writer who had his 15 minutes of fame when he wrote a bestseller about a crime in Kentucky. His later books were not as successful, and Ellison decides to write another by moving to a new town and into the very house where four family members were hanged in their backyard. The fifth member of that family, a girl named Stephanie, was not hanged and remains missing, presumably abducted by the psychopath who killed her family. Ellison is determined to find out what happened. It becomes known to Ellison’s preteen children that they are living on the site of the tragedy, though the son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and the daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) find out in starkly different ways. When Ellison’s usually supportive wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) finds out that Ellison has moved his family into that particular house, she is incensed and what transpires is a remarkably lucid and believable conversation – a rare moment for a horror film. The family members are well-defined characters in their own right rather than serving as mere cattle to be tipped for our amusement.
Second, there is a supernatural premise as Ellison – aided by video-chatting with a professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) who specializes in the occult – uncovers that an ancient pagan deity named Bughuul (a “children’s soul-eater”) may be responsible for more than just the tragedy at the center of Ellison’s latest book. In the attic, Ellison discovers five Super 8 films and a projector that shows the hanged family as well as four other families’ murders. At first, the films do not reveal who or what committed the horrendous acts that are carried out in some unsettling sequences. Ellison begins to experience paranormal activity in and around the house. His only confidants are the occult professor and a local sheriff deputy (James Ransone), the latter being a particular fan of Ellison’s work who wants to be acknowledged for his assistance when the latest book is published.
The film nicely and tidily incorporates a possibly haunted house, family crisis, a boogeyman, children in peril, and grisly murders. Scott Derrickson, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, admirably misdirects the audience by focusing almost entirely on the past murders and on Ellison’s querying of them. Derrickson’s deft direction led to an actual surprising third act for me; I almost hate to admit that I did not guess the ending’s specificities before they occurred. I suppose the critic in me is disappointed that I was taken by surprise. As an audience member, however, I am glad that I had not seen it coming in quite the package in which it arrived. The film’s progression leads to a particular, inevitable climax and most of said progression is nicely done. There are unanswered questions and the package is not perfectly wrapped, but these are minor, forgivable flaws. Generally, the ending genuinely suffices and satisfies. When it becomes available, I can say with certitude that it will have a place in my horror collection.