Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Scott Derrickson and C.Robert Cargill
A box of Super 8 home videos are the object of obsession in Sinister, a slightly different, but often familiar found footage horror film by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). While Derrickson’s film is generally agreeable for most of its run-time, it becomes bogged down by the routine genre tropes one might expect when dealing with a story concerning ghosts and haunted houses. While the depiction of man’s voyeuristic tendencies is appealing for a while, most of what we encounter is a charade of smoke and mirrors that can only cover up this narrative’s flaws for so long.
As the film opens, we’re shown an old home movie detailing the grisly murder of a couple and their two kids. The family is shown hanging from a tree in their backyard until they’re eventually dangling and left for head by an unseen killer. Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime novelist looking for one last hit that will solidify his legacy. Ellison and his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’ Addario) have just moved into the home of said family many years after the tragedy, as Ellison looks for inspiration for his new work that seeks to uncover the truth about the daughter of the family that was never found.
The family’s arrival in town is harshly looked down upon by the local Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) who believes Ellison’s career is a series of exploits. Ellison is far removed from past fame and glory, having not produced a success like Kentucky Blood in some time, a previous novel that put him on the map as a sort of Capote-esque genius (Ellison cites his current novel could be his In Cold Blood). Ellison gets more than what he initially bargained for when he uncovers a box with an 8mm camera and a selection of films that detail several other ghastly ritual killings that may or may not be connected; each putting the protagonist into the role of anxious voyeur. There’s an odd resemblance to Joel Schumacher’s 8MM about a private investigator hired to discover the authenticity of a “snuff film.” Schumacher’s film was mostly a misfire, but was obligated to the milieu of such a world. Sinister could have thrived under such atmospheric impulses, but it’s far more intrigued by lame jump scares and twisted children.
The film mostly thrives when Ellison is in full-on detective mode, but the screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Gargill has other motives; most of which rely on repetitive paranormal episodes throughout the family’s house which bring up formulaic domestic tension. The only true horror on display is the question of the identity of a blurred and obscure figure who seems to permeate the films Ellison is investigating. The film’s score is one of its best attributes as composer Christopher Young provides a potent chill that runs throughout the picture. Ethan Hawke turns in a consistent and believable performance as the weary and spooked Ellison, but there’s little else around him in the acting department. Vincent D’Onofrio and James Ransone (Treme, The Wire) pop up in supporting roles to assist Ellison. The former is a straight-faced cult expert who speaks with Ellison primarily through FaceChat, the latter is a local cop and admirer of Ellison who just wants to help.
Outside of its paranormal influences, the world of Sinister is not far removed from ours. There are small hints of social disconnect, our fascination with technology (Ellison actually Googles “how to edit Super 8 film” at one point), and a weariness of the recession as Ellison seems hell-bent on providing for his family in his quest for another 15 minutes of fame. All of these traits are mildly interesting, but Sinister treads familiar ground far too often to be deemed a significant work. As the film nears its rather abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, we’re left thinking how slight this story really is. One could do far worse than Sinister, but at last, it falters beneath its many shadows that are left unexplored.