It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.
Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.
Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.
The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).
So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.
At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.
The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.
3.75 stars out of 5!