Written by C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson
Directed by Scott Derrickson
A Summit Entertainment Lionsgate Picture
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Ellison Oswalt); Juliet Rylance (Tracy Oswalt); Michael Hall D’Addario (Trevor Oswalt); Clare Foley (Ashley Oswalt); Fred Thompson (The Sheriff); James Ransone (Deputy So-And-So); Vincent D’Onofrio (Professor Jonas); Nick King (Mr. Boogie)
Like all my articles (and since this film is only a year old), Here There Be Spoilers.
There may be a few members of my loyal readership (also known as Joel, Murray and Leslie) who, judging by the bulk of films I’ve already reviewed, believe that I’m not giving modern horror films a fair chance; nearly all the films have been made before the mid-1980s. Let me respond by putting your fears to rest (which, let’s face it, is a weird thing to do in a discussion of horror films): I have nothing against modern horror films. True, it is getting harder and harder to find a really terrific scary movie these days, but that is definitely not because filmmakers have forgotten how to do it. I believe that, after more than a hundred years of cinematic scares, it’s a difficult task to come up with something even the most experienced horror fan has never seen before. Some studios have given up and gone the other way, remaking, rebooting and sequelizing great films until a once diamond-in-the-rough becomes a good beginning to a turgid franchise. Others plonk down good money on top quality special effects, leaving roughly fifty cents left over to spend on the script. With all these factors, it’s no wonder how difficult it is to find a great horror film in the 21st century.
And this is why when you do find one, the love you feel for it can be extraordinary. Such is the case of Sinister.
Sinister has aspects that we’ve seen before, but the film is made with so much obvious respect and love for the genre that it feels fresh even on its fiftieth viewing. It mixes ideas from different films: it is shot traditionally but uses aspects of the “found footage” genre, uses haunted houses, demons, curses, and creepy child aspects of dozens of previous films in one highly effective stew. And on top of it all Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a writer of true-crime novels who once tasted fame and fortune but has since fallen on hard times. His last two books got more wrong than right and, on the verge of becoming an industry joke, he chases one more horrific murder to a small town in Pennsylvania, tasting a new book and his long sought-after fame to go with it. “We haven’t moved a few houses down from a murder, have we?” his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) asks and Ellison honestly answers no; he’s moved his family straight into the home of a family who were found hanging from a tree in the backyard. The youngest member of the murdered family, a cute little girl call Stephanie, has disappeared. After he’s told by the local sheriff (Fred Thompson) that he cannot rely on his office for any help on his investigation (with the exception of one star-struck deputy (James Ransone)), Oswalt sets up his HQ, complete with crimes scene photos and whiskey bottles, but also with the contents of a mysterious box found in the attic. Ellison finds an 8mm film projector and tins of films with innocuous labels like “Family Hanging Around” and “Pool Party.” When he plays the films, he discovers that he’s stumbled onto a series of murders, possibly perpetrated by a mysterious figure seen the shadows of the celluloid, and he may have just placed his whole family in grave danger.
1408 (2007) and Sinister make an effective double feature based on the merits of their lead characters: both Ellison Oswalt and 1408‘s Mike Enslin (John Cusack) are writers specializing in the darker sides of humanity; Mike dealing in hauntings that he doesn’t really believe in and Ellison in actual crimes that he doesn’t suspect might be rooted in the supernatural. Both of them are having family troubles; Mike has abandoned his wife in the wake of his daughter’s death while Ellison is begging his family for a little more patience while he takes one last shot at fame. And herein lays the great difference between the two characters: Mike begins 1408 as an unlikable cynic who reaches into himself and finds the man he was when his family was still intact, Ellison is a likable and essentially good man whose desperation has caused him to place his family in turmoil. Even before the question of supernatural harm arises, we learn that Ellison’s family had been long suffering in his quest for greatness; he sees the move to the new house as a new opportunity while Tracy and the children experience the reality of Ellison’s choices while he locks himself up with his whiskey. During an argument, Tracy talks about the horrible looks she gets from local people at the supermarket because her husband is delving into things best left alone. His son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), not only gets teased at school for his dad’s decision to move into the murder house but also suffers night terrors. All of this pales in comparison to when Ellison starts roaming his new house late at night, hearing the sounds of little feet that do not belong to his sleeping children. Ellison, a man who is presumably used to delving into seedy crime scenes, enters an undiscovered country when he starts watching the 8mm films of the murders and spies the horrid face of Mr. Boogie staring back at him. If Ellison were truly a cynical character, he might find his nightly terrors exciting. It is a testament to his good nature that he is horrified by what happens around him; he turns away (in some cases violently) from the images of death he watches each night and is genuinely concerned by Trevor’s night terrors (which have little to do with the overall plot but due lend atmosphere to their film, especially when the boy emerges screaming from a packing crate in the middle of the night).
Ellison’s downfall is his unbreakable sense of denial. Tracy, cheerful and supportive (to a point), lightly nudges Ellison about his rapidly twiddling options as a writer. “Kentucky Blood (his last best seller) was ten years ago,” she lightly admonishes him at one point, before warning him that one more failure will spell the end of their marriage. Ellison is a well of confidence in front of his family but, privately, he is a mess: rattling around his office like one of Dickens’s ghosts in an old sweater that probably smells like a zookeeper’s foot and slurping up whiskey until he falls asleep with a baseball bat clutched in his hands. This man has absolutely no business with civilized people, let alone the head of a household with children. All of this comes to head in a major argument between Ellison and Tracy after she has finally discovered that they have moved into a murder house. The whole argument boils to down to what Ellison believes is his legacy, his soon-to-be-expected best-seller, while Tracy reminds him that it’s his children. In a quick moment, Ellison has revealed that the mark he wants to leave behind in the world has nothing to do with his descendants (which is good because he’ll have none), he sees his name in lights, as a figure of greatness independent of whatever might happen to his children. And when his daughter Ashley (Claire Foley) leans over him in the final sequence with an axe and says “Don’t worry, Daddy; I’ll make you famous again,” Ellison realizes that he’s just won the booby-prize in the world’s worst contest; he’ll go down with Mary Kelly and Rosemary LaBianca and hundreds of other people who would rather have lived to old age in absolute obscurity. Fame is a goblet of bland, indifferent wine and a quaff can lead to so many places other than happiness.
Sinister scores high points on atmosphere; most of the best sequences happen when Ellison is working, in the middle of the night, and his house takes on a murky hue as he wanders around it, looking for the source of noises and just missing the child specters creeping all around him. Ellison pays them as much attention as he does his real children, one of whom is being primed to become the next link in Mr. Boogie’s chain of sacrifice. Sinister paints a unique portrait of a doomed family in a long line of doomed families. We’re given very little information about the families that Mr. Boogie struck down before he turned his attention to the Oswalts; the home movies that Ellison watches mostly show the doomed families having fun. We’re meant to note the contrast between parents and children playing and enjoying grilled burgers and their grisly murders a few frames later. But are the fathers of those families plagued by the same demons as Ellison is? Did those fathers watch the films and bring the wrath of Mr. Boogie down on them? It seems hardly likely and we can only assume that the Oswalt family snuff footage – laying in wait in a box in their attic – probably contains no footage of the family enjoying a day out; Ellison may love his children (he is, essentially, a good man) but he has neglected his responsibilities and has led his family into a trap that the New York Review of Books won’t get him out of. Like a creature of the night, Ellison Oswalt courts darkness, using his family as a lifeline to the everyday world of light and normal living, and shouldn’t be surprised when he finally does dig up something so dark that he can’t help but be swallowed. Even when he realizes the danger and tries to run (burning the film and speeding away with his family from their haunted house), he’s unable to escape; he’s dabbled too deeply and Mr. Boogie follows him, his eye firmly fixed on Ashley. Almost a stereotypical creepy kid from the last twenty years of horror films, Ashley has been mostly ignored throughout the entire film, but she becomes the next soldier in Mr. Boogie’s army as she drugs and ties up her family, dispatches them with an axe and uses their blood to paint the next link in Mr. Boogie’s chain on the walls. The picture ends with the box of films sitting in the Oswalt attic, waiting for yet another poor sucker to poke his head up and see what has been left for him.
Sinister is a great horror film, nearly flawless from start to finish and a production of the 21st century, which makes it all the more special. Ethan Hawke, a former pretty-boy actor of the 90s, has reached middle-age and isn’t afraid to portray misguided characters who mean well but ultimately pave the path to disaster. Coming up close behind him is a great supporting cast and a script that doesn’t fail to thrill and shock. Its only failure is that so few horror fans have heard of it. Maybe they have heard of it but they don’t wish to talk about it because, unlike fun films like Dawn Of The Dead (1978) or House of 1000 Corpses (2003), Sinister leaves a chill racing up and down a viewer’s spine long after the final credits have rolled. In that respect, Sinister lives up to its name.