Beware of Mr. Boogie!
The H-Bomb: True crime writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves, with his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and kids, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley), to a small town to work on a book about a family that was murdered there. Ellison hasn’t had a best seller in about ten years, and if he wants to keep writing for a living, this new book will have to be a hit. His wife is trying to be supportive about the whole project, there’s just one little thing he hasn’t told her or the kids . . . that the house they’ve just moved into is the same one where the murdered family had lived.
So, while putting some things away in the attic, Ellison comes upon a box full of 8mm movies and a projector. These movies are dated from different years, one dating as far back as the 1960’s, and, as Ellison discovers while watching them, each film shows the murder of an entire family. One family was drowned in their pool, another burned to death in their car, another had their throats slit, and the most recent one, the one whose house Ellison has moved into, were all hanged from the big tree in the backyard.
Sensing he has the makings of a really big book on his hands, Ellison locks himself away in his office, with a bottle of whiskey, studying each film carefully, trying to find out who these other families were and what connections they may have had to each other. For this, he recruit’s the help of Deputy So n’ So (James Ransone), a fan of Ellison’s books and his only ally in an otherwise hostile Sheriff’s Department (headed by Senator Fred Thompson).
Connections between the families, who all lived in different states, are indeed found, but Ellison soon has his own problems to deal with. His sleepwalking son has been having increasingly severe night terrors, his daughter has been drawing disturbing pictures on the wall and seems to have made a new imaginary friend, and Ellison himself has been hearing strange noises coming from the attic at night. But perhaps worst of all, is a figure Ellison has spotted in all of the movies, a creepy, sinister looking figure who’s on hand for every murder. Who is he? What is he? Does Ellison really want to find out?
The rather generic title aside, Sinister is, overall, a good horror movie. Hell, at times, it showed promise of being a great horror movie. But, showing promise and actually being are two different things, and, at the end of the day, Sinister was almost great, but ultimately just had a few too many problems to kick it up to that next level.
Let’s start with what the movie got right, the atmosphere. The shadowy cinematography hit just the right note in creating an eerie, unsettling mood. This flick got genuinely creepy as fuck in places, especially in the last reel. Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) also did a good job of showing Ellison’s increasing obsession with the murders and his sense of isolation, as he holes up in his office, watching the movies over and over again, drinking more and more as things wear on. It’s kept fairly ambiguous as whether or not the spooky shit is actually happening, or if Ellison is just losing his own grip on reality. The sequence where he searches around his house in the middle night with a baseball bat in hand, while ghostly figures appear and disappear behind him, is truly frightening.
There’s no denying it, Sinister does have its moments, moments that make it worth seeing for horror fans, but when I say moments, I mean exactly that . . . moments. There’s also a lot of dead time between these moments, where the pacing and narrative flow have a very “stop and start” feel to them. We get a very intense scene, then we either get a bunch of expository conversations, or we get Ellison drinking whiskey and watching the movies. At times it felt like I was watching Ethan Hawke watch a movie. The plot had a strange lack of actual momentum, so when we finally got to the unnerving climax, it didn’t feel as though the film had sufficiently built up to it.
And while I’m bitching, I might as well bring up the jump scares, of which this movie has more than a few. In fact, there are more false scares in Sinister than there are in any other film I can name off the top of my head, at the moment. Now, I will give Derrickson and his editor and sound designers this, the jump scares do what they‘re intended, they will make you jump. They made me jump, more than once, but if you’ve read any of my past horror movie reviews, then you know how I feel about jump scares, and how cheap and lame I think they are. So, every time one came up, my jump would usually be followed by an eye roll . . . an eye roll that got bigger and more annoyed with each passing fake-out jolt, until it got to the point where I actually gave the movie screen the middle finger (yes, the people sitting next to me at the screening turned and looked at me as I self-consciously lowered my finger).
But, getting back to the film’s positives, there is the cast, led by the stellar Hawke (who I believe our esteemed editor, Rick Swift, once mockingly referred to as “Bird Boy” way back in the day). He’s rocking his usual Ethan Hawke look, a 40 year old who still dresses like a 20-something slacker, but he does a nice job of carrying the show, especially since he spends a great deal of screen time by himself, and he’s more than sold when his character starts to unravel psychologically. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be scared for him, or scared of him. Fred Thompson brings a weighty, authoritative presence as the gruff, menacing, “we don’t want yer kind around these parts” Sheriff, and Private Pyle himself, Vincent D’Onofrio, puts in a neat little cameo, via Skype, as Professor Exposition, an expert on all things occult that Ellison reaches out to at one point.
All praising and griping out of the way, I say Sinister is a solid, surprisingly stylish scare flick that indeed delivers some strong scares in spots, I just wish it was more consistent in doling them out. But, despite some structural flaws in the narrative, the film’s strengths do outweigh its weaknesses, and as I said, for fans of the horror genre, it’s very much worth checking out in theaters, especially around this time of year. For others, it should make for a perfectly decent rental on a Saturday night. And who is this Mr. Boogie I mentioned at the beginning of the review? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.