The Halloween season is upon us, and with it comes a dependable spate of studio horror releases that promise to serve up a cold dose of the willies. This week we have Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, a haunted house style thriller starring the increasingly weather-beaten Ethan Hawke that employs the sort of found-footage jump-shocks we have come to expect in a post Paranormal Activity world. Will Sinister satisfy your needs for a good scare at the cinema this season? The answer likely depends on whether you’re a seasoned horror fan or a novice just out for a jolt.
Sinister concerns itself with the plight of Ellison Oswalt (Hawke), a true crime author attempting to replicate the success of a book he had written ten years in the past. He moves his wife, young daughter and confusingly effeminate teenage son into a murder house where recently an entire family was hung in the giving tree out back. How Oswalt’s harping wife (Juliet Rylance) has managed to avoid discovering this fact is one of the many leaps of logic this film demands as it herds you to the scares, but whatever, it’s a horror movie. Oswalt discovers a box full of scary and hilariously titled super 8 films in the attic, (they have innocuous, ironic titles like “pool party” in which a family is drowned — you get the picture) demons are released and we’re off to the races.
I’ll say this much in Sinister‘s defense — it is a well made movie. As a piece of engineering designed to startle (there are many effective jump-scare moments) it succeeds, and in terms of most technical aspects, it’s a quality production. Hawke makes for a suitably frazzled protagonist and the other performances are decent as well, including a comedic turn by the local deputy (James Ransone) that actually accomplishes lightening the mood without being jarring or cringe-worthy. On a surface level there’s nothing majorly wrong with Sinister, and I think for viewers just looking for a spooky jolt, it will satisfy. My problems with Sinister were on a story level and what I was bringing to the film as a seasoned horror fan, and I believe that for most other seasoned horror fans, Sinister will fail to ultimately satisfy or distinguish itself from the crop of recent found-footage style haunts.
The reason for this is simple: Sinster feels less like a story that grew from an organic place than a script (by Derrickson and internet scribe C. Robert Cargill) that was backward engineered from the best moments of recent, better films. Anyone who has been paying attention to horror in the last few years will recognize plot points from the Paranormal Activity‘s and the similarly titled Insidious (the film was not surprisingly produced by the makers of those movies), not to mention lifts from everything from The Shining to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Horror movies don’t necessarily trade in originality, but everything in Sinister feels so miserably au courant that it seems to almost wallow in its own redundancy. It’s a ho-hum best-of package, which wouldn’t be so bad if the scares were, you know, scary. But instead of innovation we get imitation by way of jump-scare ghost children in goofy zombie make-up or grainy, over processed found-footage of the not-so-grisly murders. You know, all the crap you’ve seen a million times already.
Another way the movie reaches and fails is its attempt to present a new horror icon in the character of the child-eating “Mr. Boogie”, or as Vincent Dinofrio explains in a thankless Skyped-in cameo, the demon Baghul. Baghul is the least-scary type of horror monster, a long-haired, juggalo-faced spectre that wasn’t scary 15 years ago when he went by the name Marilyn Manson. C’mon dudes, Baghul? Are you serious? There hasn’t been this weak of an attempt at a franchise character since Mitch Pileggi’s “terrifying” turn as Horace Pinker in Shocker. Actually, Baghul and Horace both share a penchant for manifesting themselves through viewed media, so maybe there’s a crossover there. Get to work on it fellas.
(Side note: Can we please do away with the “boogie man” trope already? It was awesome in the original Halloween and the 20,000 films that followed, but it’s time to come up with a new term for the monster in the closet. No modern kids know what the hell “the boogie man” is, nor do they care. Move on please.)
Anyway, after endless scenes of Hawke walking around in the dark and boogah-boogah ghost-kid scares, the movie runs its inevitable course with a “twist” that most veteran horror fans will see coming a mile away, tying up the been-there-done-that experience in a neat, predictable bow. Upon leaving the theater one may be tempted to start picking apart the numerous plot-holes, inconsistencies and leaps of logic, but really that’s a fool’s errand. I can accept a poorly thought-through story if it gives me something to remember, but sadly Sinister fails on that crucial level. There’s no single scene that etches itself on one’s brain, except for maybe the opening murder, presented as a piece of found footage. It’s a nice moment, but the film never replicates or even maintains that level of effectiveness. It’s a greatest hits package, and as such, it is well presented. But if you’re looking for something a little more original to scare you this spooky season, Sinister is better left for your Netflix queue.