Sinister (2012, 1 hr, 50 mins)
I like a film with an unexpected twist, which is usually the core of a good horror movie. I admit that I am often trying to figure out the formula within the first 5 to 10 minutes of a movie, and I can guess a plot around 60% of the time. With Sinister, I was way off.
We start off with a jarring film of 4 people with sacks over their heads and nooses around their necks, hanging from a massive tree. Your eye catches a slow movement, and you realize that a branch has been rigged to slowly strangle them as it drops to the ground. Our attention is then snapped back to true crime writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moving his family into a new home as he embarks on a new writing project. This new home has a dark and horrific past and he plans to write a book about it. He seems hopeful that this story and mystery about a missing child will bring him a boost to his stagnating career and ego. His drive also leads him to keep the house’s past a secret from his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylant), and to show defiance to the local sheriff, who makes it clear that Ellison is not welcome. His previous books have exposed incompetency within the police force and he is not popular with the law.
Things get creepy right away with the ominous presence of the massive broken tree towering over the house, a box of film reels that Ellison finds in the attic, and your friendly neighbourhood scorpion, which he quickly dispatches. When he watches these films, he is horrified to see that they are home movies of happy families and the graphic ways in which they are murdered. Reel after reel shows drownings, burnings, slashings and the most recent hangings from the backyard tree that terrify and push Ellison for answers. The two burning questions haunt him: “Who made the film?” and “Where is Stephanie?”, the missing child in question. These mysteries isolate him from his family, and lead him to the bottle. The house is also downright creepy, and his wife Tracy is frustrated with his hunger for success and lack of attention to his family. More is revealed as Ellison enlists the help of a quirky deputy (James Ransone) and a university professor named Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio). He finds out that Stephanie is not the only missing child, and that there is a chilling demon-like presence in each film (to be precise, a “Mr. Boogie” who ain’t dancin’). Add an unhappy daughter, a son that suffers from severe night terrors, snakes, angry dogs, and ghost-like entities, and we have the recipe for a downward spiral into obsessive koo-koo land.
When this film first starts with the home movie of a hanging, I thought, “What the hell?!! What am I seeing here?!!” It made me want to watch, despite the gruesome subject matter and my dislike for Ethan Hawke. However, after the intriguing first moments, the film got a tad formulaic, with one haunted house cliché stacked upon another, and I also found the buildup to be a little slow. Once it got going, though, I liked the twist that was revealed just as the pace was getting a bit tiresome. I enjoyed feeling tricked by all the clichés as I pointed the finger at almost all the slightly suspicious characters and was totally off course. I also loved the ’70’s feel to the production and the incredible scoring by Christopher Young that highlighted Ellison’s isolated, insular experience of his obsession and a general sense of foreboding. Ethan Hawke was pretty convincing as a man desperate to be successful and do right by his family. I didn’t quite understand the longed haired ’70’s rock star look of Ellison’s son, Trevor. I was also not a fan of the children. I don’t want to give away too much, but lets just say that the camera lingered a tad too long on them in a couple of scenes, which in the past has elicited extreme giggles from me at moments which are meant to be chilling. I still think it was an origninal idea from director Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote the film with C. Robert Cargill, and also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the upcoming Beware the Night. I would recommend sticking it out to the end.
Most Memorable Scene: As Ellison hears bumps in the night, he runs through the house searching for a source, as unseen entities play a haunting game of hide and seek around him. Great camera effects!
Favourite Line: “Snakes don’t have feet.” The quirky deputy explains to Ellison after he reports noises coming from the attic and finds a snake up there. Thanks dude, real perceptive!