Horror movies can be a tricky thing. There are so many bad horror movies out there, it’s hard to figure out which ones are actually worth watching. Sinister comes from the producer of the Paranormal Activity movies and Insidious (all of which I’ve seen) and the writer-director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I haven’t). To be quite honest, the real selling point for me was Ethan Hawke. And that scene from the trailer of the disturbing kid crawling out of a box. But mostly Ethan Hawke.
I actually knew very little about the plot of the movie going in, but it’s set up pretty quickly. Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a true crime novelist who moves his family to a new town to investigate a murder case for his next book. He hasn’t had a big hit in 10 years, and his wife (Juliet Rylance) wants him to move on with his career. Ellison has a lot riding on this book, likely to be his last, and the pressure is on. To make matters worse, Ellison is hiding the fact that his family is living in the actual home where the murder he’s investigating took place.
Things start getting interesting when Ellison finds a box of super-8 films in the attic and watches them in hopes of finding clues for his research. Instead he finds a disturbing video diary of several graphic murders, including the murder he’s investigating. The murders are clearly all connected, and Ellison quickly realizes he is on to something big. He becomes obsessed with tracking down the person responsible for the super-8 murders. Meanwhile, eerie things start happening around the house and Ellison seeks the help of a local cop and a college professor to help him solve the case before things get out of hand.
The first half of the movie plays more like a mystery than anything. I was quickly engrossed in the murder cases and interested to follow along as Ellison uncovered more clues. There weren’t a lot of cheap scares early in the movie; it was more about slowly building suspense and creating the mood. As Ellison gets closer to understanding the mystery behind the murders, more supernatural elements came into play and the sense of tension and fear is a lot stronger.
The movie takes place entirely in Ellison’s house, so as you watch a certain sense of claustrophobia starts to set in. While Ellison’s wife and kids play an important role in the movie, it really is all about Ellison. He is the focus of every scene, and this is why it was a very good thing they had Ethan Hawke to play him. Hawke was able to convey fear and anxiety throughout the movie without going over the top. It was believable, and that’s really what made things work. I realize this comment is cheapened by the fact that I am obviously an Ethan Hawke enthusiast, but I’m pretty confident even an Ethan Hawke hater (is there such a thing?) would agree with my assessment here.
The end of Sinister seems to come a bit abruptly after the slow burn leading up to it, and it is fairly predictable. The set-up was great; the pay-off was disappointing. The ending aside, my only other real criticisms are related to things that are basically expected in horror movies. Some of Ellison’s choices were a bit suspect. His family repeatedly slept through a plethora of disturbingly loud noises. Certain things would happen that seemed really random and would never come back around again. But like I said, these types of things are pretty common in horror movies and you just kinda have to roll with it.
As far as actual scare factor, there were a couple of moments that made me jump a little, but the scary part of this movie comes more from the disturbing imagery. It was enough for a mom there with her two kids to leave the theater pretty early in the movie after Ellison watched one of the Super-8 murders. (I don’t know why she thought it was a good idea to bring her 9-year-olds to an R rated horror movie in the first place, but that’s a story for another day.) There’s some pretty graphic stuff, and plenty of creepy images to get burned into your brain.
Where this movie succeeded most was when it took more of a murder mystery approach. As it got more supernatural, the connection with the audience drifted a bit and things became less scary and more predictable. Fortunately even some of the more predictable moments were supplemented with interesting cinematography, sound, and editing. It was unique and ambient without calling too much attention to itself; exactly as it should be in a horror movie. Overall, though, as far as horror movies go this one would fall under the category of “surprisingly decent.” If you’re looking for a Halloween scare, you could do a lot worse than Sinister.