Movie Review: Sinister
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The haunting image of a family dangling from a tree at the beginning of “Sinister” sets the tone for a creepy film that teases with its vagueness.
The gruesome opening scene is rendered on grainy Super 8 film. The medium serves as an integral part to the horror directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written by Austinite C. Robert Cargill.
Horror filmmakers have used fake “found footage” as a storytelling device frequently in the past decade. But here the idea of “found footage” is explored in a new way, as we follow a character who actually stumbles upon the mysterious film.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true-crime novelist whose best works are seemingly behind him. But he is certain his next book is going to be the one that returns him to literary greatness.
The sometime-college professor, complete with studious glasses, cardigan and the stubble of a man concerned with things more important than shaving, has moved his family into a house in a rural area.
The curious mass murder of a family has attracted the interest of the writer. More curious is the fact that one of the family members, a young girl, was spared and has gone missing.
Authorities, led by a stern sheriff played by Fred Thompson, have given up on the case. And they think Ellison should leave it alone, as well. In a telling moment of foreshadowing, the sheriff advises Ellison not to investigate what transpired — it is the type of crime that cannot be explained.
But the obsessive writer doubles down on his commitment. He actually moves his family, unbeknownst to them, into the house where the murders occurred.
Ellison discovers a reel of film in the attic that depicts pieces of the murder. But the story is not complete. He only gets glimpses, and his research continually gets interrupted by things that go bump in the night.
One of those nighttime spooks comes in the form of Ellison’s adolescent son, who keeps having night terrors that lead to sleepwalking and hiding away in strange places only to be found by his concerned parents. The nature of the nocturnal wanderings is not clear but seem to be in some way connected to the supernatural occurrences that accompany Ellison’s research.
More reels of film mysteriously appear, also depicting spliced scenes of other gruesome murders and their aftermath. Ellison keeps the information from his supportive but exhausted wife (Juliet Rylance) but receives a bit of help in his investigation from an ambitious but goofy sheriff’s deputy (James Ransone) and an odd cameo (via Skype) from Vincent D’Onofrio as a college professor.
D’Onofrio’s professor Jonas helps Ellison piece together symbols from the video that suggest the murders are tied to the occult.
As the supernatural threats become palpable, the writer must decide whether to put his career or his family’s safety first. But with this Pandora’s box of horrors open, it may be too late.
Hawke gives a strong performance as the head-strong and increasingly spooked writer and displays a nice sense of timing with the horror elements. “Sinister” uses a few horror staples as red herrings to keep the audience off balance, and delivers some great shocks using children as forces of evil.
Though the idea of a family living in a haunted house is nothing new, it’s nice to see a bit of realism worked into the script. You don’t shake your head while yelling, “Get out of the house,” at the unwitting characters. Instead the danger creeps in and has an insidious effect. A few logical gaps exist in the overall nature of the horrors in “Sinister,” but as Thompson’s character says early on, crimes like this just can’t be explained.