Mark Reviews Movies

Sinister

SINISTER

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent images and some terror)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 10/12/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 11, 2012

There comes that moment when the truth of the story reveals itself. Everything we thought we knew is tossed aside, the floor drops out from under the narrative, and however else one might want to put it. While some might consider it cheap to save that sort of twist until the very end, it is the only way to ensure that the audience doesn't have too much time to consider what the new information means and simply allow the shock. This is especially true if the idea has nowhere else to go.

The revelatory moment in Sinister is one that dismisses the genuinely intriguing and creepy premise the movie spends two acts creating and building upon for a far more standard and far less frightening one. Certainly there are hints here and there as to the reality of the situation in which the protagonist finds himself, primarily the repeated motif of a man walking through darkened hallways late at night as strange noises sound over in that direction—or perhaps they came from above him.

Then, though, the actual scene hits. It's obvious, as it is the first time since the strange events inside the house begin that director Scott Derrickson leaves the protagonist and what he sees (and, more importantly during the sequence, doesn't see) to witness someone else and what they are able to see.

The riddles in describing what happens late in the story are necessary, because the movie does a fine job with its psychological red herrings. The screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill offers multiple explanations for why Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) might be spending his nights wandering around his new home late in the night. Perhaps it's the stress of trying to write a new book that he hopes will become the greatest success of his career so that he can provide a good life for his family. Maybe it's the heavy intake of whiskey. It might just be the fact that he's moved his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged in the backyard.

Ellison is a writer of true crime books. His last success was ten years ago, so he's itching for another. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) supports his work but would rather he keep it and all the grisly details that go along with it hidden from her and their children Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley). She has two rules: The kids aren't allowed in dad's office, and dad had better lock the door whenever he's not working.

She has good reason to enforce those rules this time; in the attic, Ellison finds a box filled with Super 8 mm film reels detailing the gruesome murders of different families since the 1960s. The most recent one shows the hanging deaths of the family that lived in the house. In all of them—hidden somewhere in a reflection or the background—is a frightening figure in what appears to be a mask. Ellison believes he's stumbled across a series of connected murders that has spanned almost half a century.

Those home movies, with innocent titles like "Pool Party" and "Yard Work" but that depict things like drowning and the terribly improper usage of a lawnmower, are genuinely disturbing. The effect of Derrickson's combination of the grisly imagery (kept to just the right level of gruesomeness, with the director obscuring a pair of murders through Ellison's glasses and cutting away from the lawnmower at just the right moment) and haunting music—an unnatural chanting—in those scenes extends into the more hackneyed sequences of Ellison wandering the house (While one of his nighttime strolls is prefaced with the fact that the power is out, we can't help but notice all the light switches on the walls during the others—just turn on a damn light already) and moments of aural stings accompanying a sudden startle (For the record, the metallic screech Derrickson employs is unnerving).

Even though the noises in the house are usually caused by something innocent (a snake and Trevor, who suffers from night terrors, for example), the movies on those film reels suggest a real threat potentially lurking somewhere in the shadows. As Ellison uncovers more information about the crimes—with the help of a local sheriff's deputy (James Ransone) and an occult criminology expert at a local university (played by an uncredited Vincent D'Onofrio)—that sensation grows even more palpable. The unmistakable clicking of the projector running in the middle of the night taunts us and Ellison, and Hawke does a fine job increasing his terror by increments throughout the movie.

When the foundation of the strange occurrences in the house is revealed, it is a complete letdown. While for a long time the threat seems to come either from a tangible outside source or some internal strain, the truth of Sinister is all too familiar, and the developments in the last act only serve to deflate the atmosphere of unease that has come before them.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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