I’ll never look at home movies the same way again. Gone are the memories of my dad’s incessant filming of every school play I was in, no matter how embarrassing it was to see him recording every rat-costumed, knitting mouse-costumed, Frenchman-costumed moment from the front row. Sinister has truly ruined them for me.
Much like Mama, it’s a movie I’d put off after seeing the trailer in 2012, lumping it in with all the other Creepy/Ominous/Malevolent/Unpropitious-named movies that also featured fairly famous attractive families being terrorised by evil spirits in a giant house I could totally never afford to have. Maybe if I’d made better acting choices in my childhood, I’d be languishing in a house with 100-foot ceilings, too.
I’m not superstitious (some of my best friends are ghosts), but I would probably check out said house and area to make sure I wasn’t living in some murder house. But luckily for Sinister‘s plot, our protagonist, pretentiously-named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), is a washed-up true crime writer (of course he’s a writer), hoping to make a comeback. He’s there with his wife, son and daughter to investigate what happened to a girl who went missing after her family was murdered. Upon arrival, he faces hostility from the town’s sheriff, who’s downright offended by Oswalt’s inaccuries in his books. But fortunately, he stumbles across a box of seemingly-innocuous home movie reels from decades past with titles like “Pool Party” and “BBQ”. Hooking them up to a projector, though, he soon discovers that they are actually surprisingly horrific snuff movies that each show a different family being murdered.
So there is mystery from the get-go: Who put the movies there? What do they want? Which characters, if any, are red herrings? Who else, if anybody, knows about these movies? And so our surly, whisky-swilling, somewhat self-centred, family-uprooting writer decides to sit down and try to endure what’s on those reels, so he can at least make a start at investigating material for his book.
What follows is the supernatural horror version of 8MM, except these home movies are far, far more disturbing than I thought they’d be. Even for a mainstream film such as this. And Hawke’s reactions, including chugging glass after glass of whisky, makes for some pretty unsettling viewing. Really, just avert your eyes. Avert your ears, too, because the music the filmmakers chose to accompany the playback of these home movies (not on the reels, because Oswalt had no sound source), is some legit Norwegian Satanic ritualistic black ambient death please help us metal. Unrelated: yay, I found my new ringtone/alarm clock!
And while those scenes are where the movie really, uh, shines (but to be clear – those aren’t scenes you’ll want to fast-forward through next time), it’s a shame that the movie has to resort to cheap, shitty jump scares. Like, literally this scary demon entity popping up at a reverse-Dutch angle like its photobombing the movie. Worse still, said jump scares are so obviously telegraphed:
1. Long, drawn-out shot in a dark hallway with tense music
2. Close-up on Ethan Hawke gingerly holding a baseball bat and breathing heavily; tense music continues
3. Close-up even further; tense music intensifies
4. Leave a gap where the jump-scare will come; close-up still there but tense music stops dead in its tracks
5. Initiate jump-scare
It cheapens the movie and farts in the face of all the genuinely palpable tension the film’s been building up so far. It’s like some neckbeard from YouTube hacked into the movie and shoved a bunch of tacky scares in there to completely contrast the way the rest of the movie handles its horror-based storytelling. But whatever, no movie’s perfect.
At least the acting is solid. Hawke is believable as always, and the kids are capable. Only Ellison’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) exhibits acting so terrible that her unnatural, awful line-readings rob any potential sympathy we would have had for her trope-ridden, one-note Wife Character. But for the majority of the movie, Hawke is on his own, and a lesser actor would have let the film fall flat. Writers are, by trade, worryingly solitary people, and for a man like Ellison, who writes about crimes so gruesome that his own children are barred from going in his office, it’s even more lonelier. He plays and edits Super 8 videos and uses iChat, so maybe we see a good third of this movie through Ellison’s damn Macbook.
Truly, Sinister lives up to its name, although I would have preferred Don’t Watch This In Your Parents’ Spooky Creaky House Because You Like Writing, Too and You Don’t Want to Get Some Boogeyman Virus on Your Laptop Because You Have the Same One as The Main Character.