[12 October 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Though we love to argue over gore and body counts, horror really hasn’t changed much in 100 years. We still revel in the experience of fear, enjoy the feeling of fake dread, all while hoping to see supernatural and paranormal incidents play out in front of us in carefully constructed, suspenseful couplets. When it works, and it’s not that often, we cheer like children. When it doesn’t, we are downtrodden and defeated. As of late, terror has been a bit of a letdown. Between The Apparition, The Possession, and Chernobyl Diaries, the Spring/Summer was shot. Now the Fall tries to find some success with the intriguing home movie based Sinister and for the most part, it’s a rousing rollercoaster ride of Super 8 shivers and contemporary creeps.
True crime author Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke) is trying to revive his previous 15 minutes of fame with a new book on a notorious unsolved murder. Apparently, a seemingly happy family was hung by the neck from a big tree in their backyard, with their youngest daughter Stephanie disappearing afterward. Deciding that the best way to get “into” the story would be to move into the death house itself, he brings his wife (Juliet Rylance), his troubled pre-teen son (Michael Hall D’Addario) and impressionable daughter (Clare Foley) along.
While unpacking Ellison discovers a box in the attic. It contains a series of Super 8 movies, including one of the current case. Each film plays out like a pleasant family memory…until something awful happens. Anxious and intrigued, he tries to tie the different images together. With the help of a local deputy (James Ransone) and a college professor (Vincent D’Onofrio), Ellison discovers a disturbing common thread. Unfortunately, by this point, his own life is being disrupted by things going bump in the night, a return of his son’s horrific night terrors, and a demonic image that appears to be stalking the Osborne’s…and their youngest child.
Sinister sets itself up to fail. It builds the perfect foundation for a horror film (part Stephen King, part Ghost Hunters, with a little found footage accent here and there), populates it with actors who don’t mind playing it serious, and then introduces an (attempted) icon that will - hopefully - last for a few more franchise-mandated sequels. It’s a blueprint for something special…or an outright disaster. Indeed, there is nothing worse than a great idea poorly executed. Luckily, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) understands what he’s up against, and does everything he can to maintain the macabre. As a result, Sinister is overloaded with atmosphere, carefully crafting its dread to draw the audience in. By the time we reach the less than enlightened conclusion, we’re already too invested to mind the flaws.
That’s because Hawke makes a very convincing cad, the kind of parent who would purposely endanger his family for another shot at fame. We get moments of real meaning, as when Ellison revisits past success via vintage VHS interviews. The look on the actor’s face as he watches these, and the more snuff-style efforts of the main narrative, really helps us identity with his plight. Similarly, the script doesn’t turn him into some tyrant, forcing everyone to bow to his whim. Ellison drinks too much, is as cautious as he is cavalier, and it’s clear that what’s happening to him is driving a wedge deep into his sanity. Another performer might not find the right tone or temperament to make this kind of material connect. Hawke triumphs beyond the genre’s usual suspects.
He gets some help from the rest of the cast. Former US Senator Fred Thompson is a decidedly dour sheriff, while Ransone is a bit too camp as the confused deputy. Ms. Rylance, given the thankless task of playing harpy to Hawke’s haggard husband, convinces us of her concerns, while D’Onofrio clearly enjoys chewing the laptop scenery as an expert who only communicates via live chat. Yet it’s the kids who are most impressive. D’Addario makes a very convincing conundrum, his sleepwalking and psychological trances adding a great deal to the overall atmosphere. And then there is little Miss Foley, who will feature prominently in the ending. She makes the sometimes flawed finale work.
What doesn’t really satisfy, however, is the explanation. It’s the tentative tightrope that all fright flicks must contend with. The question of “Why?”—why is this happening to this family (and the others, for that matter)—needs to be addressed in a way that makes sense, and that we can take seriously. A demonic entity named Bagul is one thing. Stealing souls is another. Making the monster look like a bad Insane Clown Posse member is the straw that breaks this particular creepshow camel’s curved spine. Everything about the entity is intriguing and effective. The being itself? Well… let’s just say that Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and the rest of their callous collective have nothing to worry about. Bagul is not bad, he’s just not the kind of creature that keeps you up at night.
Luckily, the rest of Sinister will. It makes great use of an otherwise tired gimmick while providing enough shocks to keep the often cynical horror crowds happy. Yes, there are moments of illogic and inaction. Yes, the minute any of us saw a ghostly figure stalking the bushes in our backyard, we’d be on the first bus out of this particular Dodge, but at least the filmmakers anticipate this and try to provide some rational answers. When all is said and (un)done, we accept the explanations. While it shies away from blood and meaningless dismemberment, Sinister is still highly disturbing. It may not make a lot of sense, but it will definitely have you looking in the darker recesses of your life for something shapeless sitting off to the side, buried deep within the shadows.