Continuing this week’s odd release trend of movies-within movies (following Seven Psychopaths and Argo) comes Sinister. As you may have gathered from the not-so-subtle title, this is the horror movie edition. Taking a cue from horror loathing pundits, critics, and religious types, it centers around super eight footage found in a creepy old attic that when viewed, spells certain doom. It would be a creepy and original premise were it not for The Ring, but alas that exists (along with numerous remakes, sequels, and sequels to the remakes) and the latest feature from Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose) treads on the graves of many other classic horror films including The Shining. It’s all slickly produced and the Super 8 murder reels themselves are particularly effective. However, as with almost any horror movie to borrow that much from the past, it’s also increasingly predictable while barreling towards an obvious conclusion that, in what must be a new high point for spoilers, was actually given away in the poster. At least that’s one first that that filmmakers can claim to have achieved with the flick, I suppose.
The story centers on a true crime novelist played by Ethan Hawke who had a hit long ago and keeps chasing the dragon. Every year or so he packs up his family and moves them to a new town where a grisly murder took place so that he can alienate the authorities and community while studying a crime that they’re all trying to forget. This time it’s the mysterious group suicide of a family who hung themselves in their own backyard with only a young child escaping. To make things extra creepy, he moved his family into the actual house where the deaths occurred. While moving in, Hawke discovers a box of old super eight movies and while procrastinating one night, decides to take a look at them, because why not? So he throws up a sheet and projects a film of the family suicide he was there to study (what luck!). He then shuffles through the rest of the film cans and discovers a series of family murders from around the country. Convinced that he’s finally found a new serial killer best seller, Hawke dives into all of the cases and eventually ends up having a skype chat with a professor of the occult played by a cameoing and uncredited Vincent D’Onofrio. D’Onofrio explains that a certain symbol he found in all the footage is the mark of an ancient demon (charmingly referred to in the film as Mr. Boogie) who lives inside art and enjoys stealing the souls of children. Hawke then finds extra bits of film in the attic labeled “deleted scenes” and after a little google-assisted super 8 splicing discovers that the missing children in every case murdered their families under the guiding hand of Mr. Boogie. Uh-oh! Spookie stuff. Good thing that Hawke doesn’t have any troubled children, right? Oh…wait…
It’s pretty easy to guess where things go from there and that spoileriffic poster fills in the gaps for anyone who can’t work it out on their own. It’s all fairly basic horror movie stuff, but given how low the standard for Hollywood horror has fallen over the last few months thanks to unfortunate releases like The Possession or The Apparition, it’s not that bad by comparison. Derrickson might not be a horror master by any means, but he at least has a basic sense of the visual grammar the genre needs and can competently tell a story. Granted he goes a little far at times by making the family home a collection of shadowy corridors and mysterious rooms even in broad daylight, but enough of the scares work to get a pass. In particular the super 8 family massacres are all disturbingly well staged, varying from the mass hanging, to burning a carload of folks alive, and a family pool drowning. These moments and others work superficially and even though the story borrows liberally from past works, it is at least compelling for the first hour or so.
Ethan Hawke plays a major role in the movie working as well as it does. Though far from his best performance, Hawke is at least able to ground the outlandish material and give a sense of naturalism to a character that could so easily have been overwrought. D’Onofrio may have literally skyped in his performance, but he knows what he’s doing and James Ransone provides some nice comedic relief as an idiot deputy/super fan of Hawke’s author who acts as a sidekick of sorts. Unlike many of the schlocky studio horror productions out there, Sinister is at least well produced with a cast of recogniazable faces who can act. The performances and professional production values go a long way in selling the outlandish story to audiences. That all only serves to make it more frustrating when Derrickson and company pile on the clichés a little too heavily in the last act as the movie goes off the rails. The film is at least a competent horror offering for the Halloween season, so I guess that’s something. It’s a shame genre fans haven’t gotten anything better in time for the horror movie holiday, but as many recent horror releases have proven, it could be so much worse.