Movie Review: Sinister

SinisterMoviePoster

Sinister is really a mixed bag. For once you’ve got a film that is actually better than the trailers would lead you to believe. But that makes it all the more frustrating when you realize how much it misses its potential.

Sinister scores points for having plenty of spine tingling moments that don’t rely on cheap jump-scares (although there are a few of those), and it gets extra special bonus points for finally doing ‘found footage’ right. (With the exception of Chronicle, I have been flat-out tired of ‘found footage’ movies for the past five years, so coming from me, this is saying a lot.) It even delivered a baddie that was almost striking enough and scary enough to spawn a franchise. Almost.

The story sets you up for some familiar territory – a troubled family moves into a creepy house with a dark past – and you know from the first five minutes how this shit’s goin’ down. Thus the journey, not the destination, is the reward. Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a writer of true-crime novels. It’s been months, years really, since he’s had anything close to a best-seller, and he’s making one last attempt at the big time. In an effort to really get inside his latest project, he moves his family into the very house where the previous occupants – another young family – were brutally murdered. (Best of all, he neglects to tell his wife!) The one detail that sets this crime apart is the fact that every one of the previous family members were murdered, except for one of the children, who mysteriously disappeared.

Creepy things start happening almost immediately, beginning with a single lonely box he discovers in the attic. He drags the box downstairs and finds some old home movies on Super 8 film with innocuous sounding titles, like “pool party” and “sleepy time,” scribbled on the canisters. After a long day of research that stretches late into the night, he loads one of the movies onto a projector. It starts out innocently enough – a family picnic; a dad tossing a football to his son – but abruptly the film cuts to a disturbing scene of four people (parents and children) with bags on their heads and nooses around their necks, strung up from a tree branch in the backyard.

The home movies, shot on old Super 8, are a prime example of ‘found footage’ really becoming one of the characters in the movie, rather than a contrivance.  That grainy, flickering film has warmth and texture, but it also has a detachment that makes the subject matter almost inherently creepy and voyeuristic, in a way that shot-on-video often doesn’t.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The more research Ellison does, the stranger things get, and as he watches each of the films he sees a succession of grisly family murders, stretching from present day, all the way back to the 1960s. The common thread that links them together is that in each case, one of the children has gone missing, and an odd pagan symbol has been left at the crime scene.

At the urging of a dorky sheriff’s deputy, Ellison contacts a local college professor, played by an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio. The professor tells him that the symbols represent a pagan deity named Bughuul, who was known as the ‘eater of children,’ and that once a child sees an image of Bughuul, a portal is created and the child falls under his influence.

Of course, from that point on, Bughuul starts popping up everywhere – in dark recesses of photos, in the old home movies, and in Ellison’s whiskey soaked imagination. By the time he realizes the implications, it’s already too late, and his own children are at risk.

D’Onofrio is woefully under-used in this film, as is Fred Thompson who plays the cranky local sheriff. If these two had been better utilized, it might have elevated Sinister to a Halloween classic, rather than just another popcorn movie.

Sinister also totally squanders it’s R rating. After having endured several lame-ass PG-13 “horror” movies this season, I was really looking forward to something a little more hardcore. While it does deliver fairly well with the scares, it’s still pretty tame, with most of the violence and gore happening off-screen – including the movie’s climax. The old home movies provide a lot of the creep factor, but while you see random acts of violence, you never see any of the terrifying circumstances that lead these poor families to their fate, which kind of dulls the overall effect.

But Sinister loses the most points for some god-awful make-up effects. Once Ellison discovers the origins of Baghuul, we start to see the ghostly spirits of the children that have been taken. Trying to make little kids look creepy is always a challenge, and in movies like The Ring and Sixth Sense, a little subtlety goes a long way. But here, it’s like they didn’t even try. The make-up on these kids looks like something straight out of the Halloween aisle at Wal-Mart. It’s so bad that it distracts from some of the scenes that could have otherwise been really frightening.

Baghull looks sufficiently creepy in most of the movie, when you’re only seeing him in the shadows or in some grainy film, but at the end he looks a little like a demented clown in a rumpled suit.

I’ve seen a lot worse during this scary-movie season, but while Sinister makes a valiant effort, it ultimately falls short.

Rating: 3/5 ★★★☆☆ 

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About Dave_P

Dave_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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