There is something inherently scary about things that go bump in the night. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and suddenly a loud thud resonates from somewhere in the house. Is it the wind, a creaky floorboard, an intruder? Maybe it’s the bogeyman. It’s funny how we only believe in the bogeyman in the wee hours of the morning. But that fear of the dark that most of us won’t admit to after the age of six is the source of countless horror films. Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke, is a formulaic but suitably creepy bump-in-the-night horror film. It’s got just enough scares to be entertaining, though it doesn’t bring anything new to the genre.
Hawke plays true crime writer Ellison Oswalt, who moves his family to the scene of a horrific crime while working on his latest book. Oswalt has been in a slump after achieving fame many years earlier for his previous crime novel. Hoping to up the ante with his latest work, he not only moves to the location of the crime being detailed, but into the very house where the grisly murders took place. That last bit of information is unknown to his long-suffering wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance). It doesn’t take long for strange happenings to occur. Reminiscent of The Exorcist, Oswalt begins hearing loud bangs coming from the attic. There he finds a box of home movies that proves instrumental to his research.
Logic would say Oswalt should turn the films over to the police as evidence, but the plot cleverly makes that difficult. It seems the cops don’t like Oswalt much, because his books have uncovered errors in their investigations. He assumes the last thing they would want is to have an overlooked piece of evidence pointed out to them. Of course he also wants to solve the crime and take all the credit by writing a bestseller about it. His only ally is a fame-seeking deputy, whom he nicknames Deputy So and So (James Ransone). The deputy is eager to help Oswalt snoop around for clues as long as he is thanked in Oswalt’s book.
It’s a cool setup, but unfortunately the true crime aspect takes a back seat once the strange happenings take hold. While part of the appeal of researching true crime cases is uncovering all the little clues and details that shape the case, Sinister is reliant on inaction. The biggest offender in the clueless department is Tracy. Despite her son’s night terrors and husband’s strange behavior, she refuses to believe anything unusual is going on. He chalks up everything to stress, simply demanding that her husband give up his career, without ever really enforcing her desires. Promising side characters are also underutilized, probably because if they actually did anything the mystery would have been solved. Instead the deputy and a professor (an uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio) lurk in the background, providing just enough expository background so we know something “sinister” is afoot.
What the film does have going for it is an engaging performance from Ethan Hawke. He shows the writer’s slow descent into maddening paranoia. Sinister creates an unsettling atmosphere that provides several jumps and scares. There is a fair amount of gruesome violence that ramps up to the climax. The villain Bughuul, also known as “Mr. Boogie,” is a kind of non-presence in the film. This works for and against the movie. He lurks in the shadows of the photos and home movies Owalt finds. It’s pretty creepy when he kind of pops out unexpectedly, but he is doesn’t seem like as much as a threat.
While I thought the final clues in the case were clever, the ending itself was a bit of a letdown. I won’t give anything away, but once the secret was revealed, the ending was a foregone conclusion. I was waiting for some kind of last-minute surprise that would change things up a bit. Despite the film falling into horror conventions, I found it to be an enjoyable one.
The Blu-ray is presented in a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. The picture is intentionally dark, which makes detail hard to see. However, when we are meant to see something, it’s there. The fine detail in shadowy images is clear at the moments when they are meant to jump out at us. The Super 8mm footage of the home movies looks authentic, full of the scratches and dirt you would expect to find on old, uncared for films. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack effectively creates the creepy atmosphere of the film. There’s not a lot of background noise throughout the film, making the loud thuds and bumps stand out even more. The sudden noises from the rear speakers rev up the intensity of the scarier scenes.
The special features include two audio commentaries, one from director Scott Derrickson and one with the two writers, Derrickson (again) along with co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There are about five minutes of deleted scenes, with director’s commentary as an option. The two other featurettes are not directly related to the production of the film but may be of interest to true crime buffs. “True Crime Authors” is a nearly 10-minute piece featuring interviews with real true crime authors discussing of craft of that style. The other is an 11-minute featurette, “Living in a House of Death,” about how the real estate market deals with actual homes in which horrific crimes have been committed. While I might have liked to have a real making-of documentary in addition, I found these to be interesting pieces that fit the theme of the film.
Sinister is not a groundbreaking, or even all that surprising, horror film, but it is an enjoyably tense thriller. It knows what to do with all the conventions of the genre. It’s dark and as sinister as the title suggests, with an unnerving performance from star Ethan Hawke.Powered by Sidelines