“Sinister” has all the rusty, trusty tools of the scary movie trade. There are creepy kids, creaky houses, a mysterious bad guy and plenty of times when things jump out at the audience. What sets “Sinister” apart from the rest of the pack is how it dwells on mankind’s dark desire to see things that shock and horrify us. The highbrow theme digs deep into the human psyche and makes the cheap thrills actually effective, and “Sinister” ends up being a movie from which both your teenage cousin and your film studies professor could glean something.
Ellison, played by Ethan Hawke, is a desperate man. The fame and fortune of his seminal true crime novel, “Kentucky Blood,” has faded, and he moves his family to a more affordable home so he can begin work on what he hopes will become his next hit book.
What he neglects to mention to his wife and kids is the fact that their new home was previously inhabited by a family who were gruesomely murdered in their own back yard, and that they are the subjects of his new book.
His wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), is stuck between trying to be supportive of her husband and suffering the accusing glances of neighbors who regard his books as getting rich and famous off of other people’s tragedies.
Ellison’s two children also suffer from their father’s obsession with regaining his faded glory, since he spends his days locked away from them in his office with crime scene photos and a tumbler of whiskey.
Ellison’s big break in his investigation of the murdered family comes when he stumbles across a collection of old 8 mm home movies depicting not just the deaths of the family he was investigating, but several others as well. The only connection between each case is that only one person was spared each time and was never seen again.
At a loss, Ellison enlists the help of a charmingly hapless local cop (James Ransone) who wants nothing more than to see his name in the acknowledgements section of Ellison’s new book.
Upon closer inspection of the films however, Ellison begins seeing the same mysterious figure in each of the videos, and things get strange fast. As the film’s tagline suggests:, “Once you see him, nothing can save you.”
An expert on occult images at crime scenes, Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) identifies this figure as an ancient deity known as Bughuul, who ends up attacking whoever sees his face.
By this point in the film, the fact that the killer is of a supernatural nature is quite obvious, as Ellison’s late nights working alone on his book are interrupted by strange noises and his increasingly disturbed children.
While a fair share of the “Boo!” moments are predictable, the scenes where Ellison is simply watching the home videos of the murdered families are both truly horrifying and strangely beautiful, and you won’t soon forget them, even if you want to. These found footage scenes are the highlight of the film, and more than make up for some of the more hackneyed moments.
Writers make great fodder for horror stories because they are so prone to obsession and working late nights in big, empty houses. The film’s plot borrows from “The Shining” in that it shows Ellison slowly going nuts as the happenings in the house get more and more disturbing, but it deviates early enough that it never feels like a rip-off.
What makes Ellison such an interesting main character is that he knows he’s doing something wrong. He’s aware that he’s putting his family and his sanity at risk but he tells himself that everything will be OK once he’s famous again, and Ethan Hawke plays him as sympathetic one moment and a despicable fame-hound the next. The movie is as much about his obsession with success and the lengths he’ll go to achieve it as it is about scares, and “Sinister” is all the better for it.
In the end, “Sinister” won’t go down as one of the great horror movies of all time. However, it’s one of the few horror movies in recent years with a three-dimensional main character, and the grisly home video sequences will burn holes in your eyes and sit in the dark corners at the back of your head for a long time. Fans looking for a quick thrill will get that and more, but people who usually avoid horror movies like graveyards at night might find that, like Ellison, they are horrified by what they see but cannot look away.
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