The classic horror movie trope in which a wide-eyed, bare-kneed girl descends into a basement finds its warped reflection in one of the earliest scenes of “Sinister.” In lieu of a comely lass, the audience is offered a bearded, bespectacled Ethan Hawke clambering up the stairs into the attic of his new home. This inversion exemplifies the film’s best moments—it plays with tradition without being distracted from the film’s true goal—to scare. “Sinister” is not claiming to be a groundbreaking rewrite of the genre like “Cabin in the Woods.” Instead, it offers up a wholesome tale of serial killing and ancient child-eating demons and does an admirable job of making its audience shriek like infants.
“Sinister” follows the once-successful true-crime writer Ellison Osborne through his last-ditch attempt to salvage his writing career and produce another great work. Ellison chases down the story of an entire family, save one, who were hung to death from a tree in their backyard. The last member of the family—the youngest daughter—was never found. In a hubristic, but unsurprising move, Ellison relocates his own family into the now vacant house. He discovers a box of home videos in the attic, all of which contain remarkably gruesome records of other families across the country being burned, stabbed, and drowned to death labeled with innocuous titles such as “BBQ” and “Pool Party.” In the first of his many moments of requisite horror-film idiocy, Ellison declines to call the police, and movie begins to earn its title of “Sinister.”
For a film that hinges on family values and features so many family units in various stages of life and death, the interpersonal relationships in Ellison’s home are the surprisingly the weakest part of the movie. The relationship between Ellison and his long-suffering wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is especially tiresome as they vacillate between moments of half-hearted chemistry and poorly choreographed screaming matches that are mostly Hawke bellowing about artistic dignity. Hawke shines much more brightly in his solitary moments, swigging scotch and gritting his teeth as he simultaneously ponders the horror of serial murder and how much money he can make writing about it.
Poor family dynamics aside, “Sinister” is best when it touches on the clichés of the horror movie genre and refreshes them with an enthusiasm free from sarcasm. Halfway through the film, Ellison finds his campy sidekick in a policeman, played by the earnest-eyed James Ransome, who introduces himself as a die-hard fan, and who Ellison calls “Deputy So-and-So.” Ransome’s character, sweet and twitchy, delivers occasional moments of comic relief throughout the film. When Ellison complains of menacing stomping sounds emanating from his attic, Ransome’s response is to verbally catalogue the animals that might be in the attic that have feet and could thus make stomping sounds—squirrels, yes. Snakes, no.
The most intriguing parts of the movie are the “found film” elements—those home records that Ellison finds and then watches obsessively for clues. Each film has its own narrative, beginning with the family still alive and ending with them less so. In each case, the murderer is off-screen, holding the camera and lighting fires or dragging knives over throats. Each film is a minor work of horror unto itself, and the enthusiasm with which Derrickson approaches the creation and exposition of these vignettes carries “Sinister” safely past the realm of schlock and marks it as a horror movie that can hold its own within the over-saturated genre.
Although Director Scott Derrickson’s new work doesn’t awe, it offers enough shock and punch to keep watchers from giggling at the standard horror movie absurdities that it sometimes employs by necessity. Dark attics, psycho killers, demons, children who paint things and stare dead-eyed at their parents—these tropes are far from unique, but “Sinister” keeps these otherwise cheap scares effective with a dose of sincerity and a healthy sense of play.
—Staff writer Sorrel L. Nielsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.