Crafting an extremely effective genre film is never an easy task, but it always seems especially challenging when the genre is horror. Most obviously, this seems to be because everyone is frightened by different things; one man’s horror film could be another man’s psychological thriller, while one’s torture porn could be another’s tasteless comedy, and so on. It is with this in mind that Sinister, the new horror film from director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), underwhelms despite being solidly scary. With its disturbing images and its tortured performance from star Ethan Hawke, Sinister achieves scares that’ll have you jump out of your seat, something many horror films these days only dream of, but does that necessarily make it true, frightening horror? I’m not so sure.
Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a once successful true-crime novelist whose book, Kentucky Blood, catapulted him to the top of The New York Times’ Bestseller List and into literary stardom. Without any recent hits and struggling to hold on to his last bits of fame, Ellison moves with his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two kids into a new home which was once the sight of a gruesome murder: four family members were hanged from a tree in the backyard while the youngest daughter went missing right after. Hoping this story will provide the roots for a book that could relaunch his career, Ellison digs deep into the mysterious investigation, eventually stumbling upon a box of home movies that show other families being murdered in similarly disturbing styles. The connection between each murder? A spine-tingling, supernatural presence that begins to haunt Ellison himself as he gets more obsessively drawn to the case and the idea of achieving great success once again.
With Hawke in the lead role, Sinister, for much of its first half anyways, is an extremely effective piece of genre filmmaking. For me, true horror comes from psychological deterioration and disorientation, which is much of the reason why We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of the most disturbing films of the past decade, and Hawke’s descent into obsessiveness is handled extremely well; when Ellison watches old interviews with late night hosts from his glory days, we see the pain in Hawke’s eyes that tells us just how badly this poor soul wants to reach fame again. Then, as we are introduced to the gruesome home movies, we see Hawke’s fragileness as he’s pulled into an investigation that is as menacing as it sounds (the home movies use “found footage” to nightmarish effect) . Just as Ellison is pulled in, so are we, and each successive movie only adds to the sickening and gut churning chills that build as the movie progresses.
And yet, Sinister, like so many of today’s horror films, looses its momentum come the second half, when it turns from an effective psychological thriller into a standard, supernatural-boogeyman scary movie. That’s what’s most underwhelming, the film starts as horror but ends up, with its consistent shocks and jolts, scarily ineffective. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump out of my seat or internally cringe out of true fear, but creepy faces popping into the frame at random and accompanied by bombastic music, while scary, isn’t long-lasting. When you walk away from a horror movie, you should feel uneasy, but nothing in Sinister ends up being scary enough to last. It’s scary in the moment, yes, but in the long haul it’s all utterly forgettable, especially the letdown of an ending that almost kills the film completely.
It’s all a shame too when you realize that Hawke’s performance and Derickson’s direction, full of moody shadows and long, almost hypnotic-like one-takes, are ripe for a haunting psychological horror movie. I guess that’s what’s ultimately so disappointing about Sinister, it seems to confirm that we are still living deep in the age of nonsensical, supernatural-obsessed horror films that, at the very best, scare in moment but fade away once the credits begin to role. Gone are the days of The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and the genuine horror films that make you feel sick to your stomach days after seeing them. While Sinister will certainly be a horrific delight for many this Halloween, for me it’s a reminder that true horror is scarce these days – now that’s really scary.
Review by Zack Sharf