While most modern horror movies usually just resort on cheap jump scares to get their thrills, every so often a movie will come along with the intent on just creeping you out. Making you feel uneasy about things. Simply disturbing you. Sinister was one of those movies… …for the most part.
It tells the tale of Ellison (played by Ethan Hawke; a guy I always forget exists until I’m actually watching him in a movie), a once successful crime writer who has hit hard times after a few less-than-quality books. Out of desperation/inspiration, he moves his family into the house of a crime scene without telling them, with the hopes of solving the case of a missing girl and the deranged death of the rest of her family. As he goes up to the attic, he finds a box of super 8 films labeled “home movies”, and in there are five reels of film labeled “Hanging Out”, “Pool Party”, “BBQ”, “Lawn Work”, and “Sleepy Time”. As he watches the films, they all start out as home movies of some random families, but eventually turn into horrible footage of the families being murdered in some pretty fucked up ways. Then the film takes a cliché turn and introduces a boogeyman-type character that eventually kind of reduces it to a standard horror film.
But the first two acts of the movie are legitimately scary. It’s a well-paced film, that spreads the scares out evenly enough that it gives you time to think about what’s going on. I know that it’s a creepy film because I’m still thinking about it two days later. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s the kind of demented stuff that sticks with you, but at the same time it didn’t feel gratuitous for the sake of showing gore or anything (it’s more disturbing than gory), it felt more real than anything else. Like we were subjected to watching a smut film. Every time he started loading up one of the super 8 films, I got the bubble guts. I knew I was in for something horrible. And this was usually followed by a scene of Ellison wandering around his house in the middle of the night, subjecting us to some sort of additional tension. Why he didn’t just watch all five home movies the first day he found them out of curiosity, I’m not sure? But I guess it opened up the story for some breathing.
But at least at first, the horror tension isn’t necessarily alarming. It just a lingering threat that something will happen. Any jump scares that we’re subjected to in the first two acts are nullified by logic shortly after. The main focus of the first two acts are just to give you a lingering, oozing fear that what you are seeing will eventually happen in some respect to Ellison and his family as well.
It sort of loses its way near the end, though, and abandons its layer of dread with the silly jump scares and “spooky” ghosts that we are used to seeing in crappy horror movies. The ending is pretty predictable, at least in the outcome, but it happened a little differently than I thought it would. As you’re watching Sinister, you kind of come to the conclusion that the film can really only have one outcome, and it pretty much works out that way. Actually, the horror part of the story is pretty mediocre, and borderline stupid. But the execution of it all (no pun intended) was superb. It’s not until we are forced to accept the fact that a stupid looking skeleton/clown thing with dreadlocks is the one causing everything, that the film starts to goes awry. I wouldn’t consider it a spoiler to say that the film’s final shot ends on a jump scare, which is kind of shitty, because it felt like so much of the movie was trying to avoid just being a shitty jump scare horror movie. It felt like some higher up executive typed watched a rough cut and said “Ehhh, it’s pretty scary, but why aren’t a bunch of ghosts darting toward the camera with loud music cues in every scene? 18-49 demographic loves that…” And the director made a compromise or something, which almost ruined the third act.
It also felt like they built up this unexplained (or poorly explained) mythology for the villain, and I was just supposed to roll with it. Like we see animal imagery at the end that related to animal imagery from the beginning and middle, and I’m supposed to connect some dots or something, but it just felt half-assed. Would have been better off just not trying to explain anything, in my opinion. This seemed like a case where fucked up things could have just happened because, well, fucked up things happen sometimes. Definitely wouldn’t work for every movie. But probably could have for this one.
Sinister would have almost worked better if it were somehow reworked into a psychological crime thriller instead of a horror movie. Maybe driven simply by paranoia instead of supernatural elements? The story in between the horror was surprisingly good. The conflict that generates from a desperate man clinging to his last chance at doing something great, and stopping at nothing to do so, was actually very well-written. And Ethan Hawke tears it up in this movie. He acted the crap out of it. If this wasn’t such a deranged film, he might be considered for some sort of acting award for it. And he wears what appears to be a very comfortable cardigan throughout the film. I wonder if he brought it from home? Wait, what? OH, anyway, yeah, the film has a great, emotional, non-horror-related family conflict in addition to it being a film about families getting murdered. It wasn’t just a good horror movie, it was a pretty good movie in general. Despite the goofy scene in the third act with the ghost kids running around.
I dragged my girlfriend into the movie, because I thought it was just going to be a ghost movie or something that she might like, and she was squirming the entire time we were watching it. At one point, when Ellison is putting in the fourth or fifth home movie, she just turned to me and said “I hate you for bringing me to this. I’m mad at you right now.” Hey, I didn’t know! Thanks for putting me in the dog house, Sinister…! After the movie she eventually said that she appreciated the overall creepiness of the movie, but hated watching it while is was going on. I agree with that sentiment, Sinister is a hard film to watch because it’s so intentionally unpleasant. But at the same time, the way they pulled off that unpleasant feeling is basically why Sinister worked so well. It achieved nearly everything it intended to. So I consider it a success.
I would really only recommend this to true horror fans; as even casual horror fans may find some of the content a little off-putting. And the film definitely doesn’t shy away from dragging out the off-putting content to lengthy extents. I wouldn’t mind checking it out again someday on Blu-ray. But probably on a night when my girlfriend isn’t around.
8 out of 10