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Movie Review: Sinister

October 12, 2012
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Let me begin this review with a quick public service announcement. If you intend to see Sinister, for God’s sake don’t watch the trailer. It will suck the scares right out of the movie.

When I see a horror movie, I want to feel frightened. I want to hunker down in my seat, biting my nails with the temptation of covering my eyes. Any uncontrollable body movement (a jump scare) is a big bonus.  The trouble is, if you are an obsessive fan of the genre, the chances of these things happening decreases considerably. If a film actually succeeds in eliciting these actions, I consider it a success, plausibility be damned. I can think of precious few horror movies in which the characters behave as rational human beings. If every character left the premises upon the first sign of something amiss, we would never have a horror movie. Sinister’s plot depends upon the protagonist’s disregard for self-preservation and his family’s well being in order to move the story forward.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a washed up true-crime writer who longs for one more big break. He’s so obsessed with regaining the spotlight that he moves his family onto a property where an entire family was murdered, conveniently keeping that information from his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance). Ellison finds a box full of super 8 films with innocuous titles like “family barbeque”, “pool party” and “hanging out in the yard”. Let’s just say there’s a double entendre to each title.

Ellison locks himself in a dark room and watches the films, horrified to find out that each film captures the grisly murder of an entire family. He tries to discover how the murders are related; meanwhile strange things are happening in the house and to his children. It is quickly apparent that these are not normal killings.  He enlists the aid of a college professor (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) who is an expert in the occult, and the local bumbling deputy (James Ransone).

Sinister is directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). He co-wrote the film with C. Robert Cargill, a well-respected film critic. Derrickson wastes no time getting the viewer fully absorbed in the story. The opening images are some of the most upsetting I have ever seen on film. Nervous laughter was quickly replaced by solemn silence in my theater. Sinister is a found-footage film that never feels like one (I mean that as a compliment). The super 8 films are grainy, but never really jumpy. They look authentic and representative of the years they were depicting. The actual murders are not bloody, but they are explicit. They profoundly disturbed me, mainly because the victims are so utterly helpless. The murderer has a penchant for duct tape, which he uses with chilling precision.

There are some serious flaws with the movie; mainly that Ellison is an idiot. He is so narcissistic that he watches videos of himself on the talk show circuit back when he had a blockbuster true-crime book. He is also so consumed by the need to capture the spotlight again that he risks his kids and marriage for a small chance at another 15 minutes. There is an incident early on involving his son that would have made any rational human being pack up the family and high tail it out of town. Then again, if Ellison weren’t such an idiot there would be no movie.  He must be so unfamiliar with his new house that he doesn’t know where the light switches are, because he never turns them on. He does all the cliché things we see in horror movies. He immediately investigates loud noises, climbs into an attic in the dark without a flashlight, etc. That being said, the tension is high throughout the entire movie. A maddening film score by Christopher Young ratchets up the suspense, and the sound of that projector starting up becomes a spooky entity of its own.

The performances are above average for a genre film. Fred Thompson plays the local Sheriff who is none too pleased that Ellison in town, mainly because he ruffled some feathers with one of his previous books. Ransone’s deputy is played for laughs, and D’Onofrio has the kind of crazy professor look down pat. Hawke is quite good in the film.

Sinister is a good horror movie, but it is not a great movie. I really wish it would not have veered into the supernatural realm. The thought that a person could commit those murders was a lot scarier. However, anytime I bite my nails to the quick and involuntarily kick the head of the guy in front of me in a movie, that film has done its job, and done it well. Sinister will be a nice alternative to the yearly rollout of a Paranormal Activity sequel this Halloween season.

3.5/5

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