Mended together with pieces from better horror movies, Sinister is directed by Scott Derrickson and features a decent performance from Ethan Hawke. There are pieces of The Shining and Ringu jammed into this 2012 horror movie and it attempts to sew up a patchwork of its own mythology, but there’s not a lot of innovation to speak of.
Featuring a screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the germ for Sinister came about after Cargill had a nightmare following a viewing of The Ring. The power of the photographed image is certainly par for the course, with Koji Suzuki’s notion of some sort of calamity prowling within the programming of said imagery laying the groundwork.
Hawke stars as the true crime writer Ellison Oswalt. He’s set to write a new book and moves into the home that was the site of the murder of an entire family. Ellison’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) doesn’t know, while 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) suffers from night terrors. Seven-year-old Ashley (Clare Foley) paints on the walls.
Ellison discovers a set of Super-8 movies and a projector in the attic. He watches the material and discovers a series of murders. Soon, he spots the image of a demonic figure and a symbol. He also finds drawings that depict a Mr. Boogie, who seems to be the figure from the movies. After consulting a professor (Vincent D’Onofrio), he discovers the meaning of the symbol. And so on.
D’Onofrio’s character is the informed observer, the individual tasked with telling the characters and the audience about the mythology of Sinister. He talks about a deity called Bughuul, who apparently would kill entire families and take one of the kids for his own. Naturally, “early Christians” are drawn into it and the link is made to the imagery. All the bases are covered.
Admittedly, there’s probably not a lot of innovative real estate out there for horror movies. But Sinister is almost entirely the product of better adventures, from Ellison’s Shining-like backdrop to the J-horror tropes to the Exorcist-style makeup jobs. If Sinister is predominately meant as tribute, it excels in drawing attention to other films.
But in terms of telling its own story, there’s just not a lot here. Hawke’s character has all the typical “writer” traits, from the drinking to the obsession to the cracked family life. There are issues with locking up his workspace, which allows the innocent child into a dark world he/she was never meant to be a part of. 2013’s Oculus employs the same psychological horror trope with greater efficacy.
Ellison is also distant from his wife, of course. Rylance’s Tracy is the cardboard concerned companion archetype. She’s around to kvetch about his work and worry about his drinking. Luckily, Ellison and Tracy have one good scene where they argue about how consumed he has become by his job. It’s stereotypical stuff, but Hawke and Rylance handle it well and exhibit quality chemistry.
Stylistically, Sinister is pretty drab. Things are darkly lit, as usual. An early scene finds the family even eating dinner in veritable darkness, shedding “light” on the spooky but conventional approach. Cinematographer Christopher Norr handles things well enough, utilizing some agreeable overhead shots to provoke a sense of foreboding.
While some horror movies can use familiar groundwork to discover things like the nature of reality or the foundational breakdown of a conventional family unit, Sinister takes the road most travelled and finishes in almost comical fashion. That it takes nearly two hours to reach its worn-down summit is the icing on the cake.
What more can be said? Sinister is another run-of-the-mill horror entry that is content to blend into the crowd. It relies on moody music, emaciated characters, rented plot elements, jump scares, noises, dim lighting, and a creepy if elementary mythos to get by. It takes far too long to get to its worn-out point, but at least Hawke’s goatee game is on-point.