A crime writer’s quest for fame leads him into a world of demonic possession and home snuff movies in Sinister, a mixed bag of old-school and contemporary horror tricks that occasionally raises a hair prickle of intrigue.
Along with obvious debts to such seventies milestones as The Shining and The Exorcist, Sinister also employs the current vogue for “found footage” shocks in such films as the Paranormal series (which shares producer Jason Blum). Though unoriginal, the film by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is effective in a narrow range; it’s mechancially relentless in delivering grisly images, like pies on a conveyer belt, straight to the viewer’s eyeballs.
Ethan Hawke, wearing writerly big glasses, a goatee and a cardigan, plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime journalist whose only bestseller, Kentucky Blood, came out a decade ago. He’s determined to get another hit book by writing about the unsolved case of a family that was ritually hanged from a tree in their backyard. Unbeknownst to his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), Ellison has moved her, along with their adolescent son and daughter, into the very house where the crimes took place. Though the regal Rylance, a British stage actress, participates in a couple of squabbles about Ellison’s domestic shortcomings, her presence barely registers here – less than the ominous corridors of their suburban home, or even Christopher Young’s aggressive score.
This is a movie that’s mostly about Ellison, watching and becoming increasingly implicated in what he sees. While exploring the attic on the first day, Ellison comes across a box with Super 8mm film reels and a projector. The titles on the cans are domestically innocuous (BBQ, Sleepy Time and, oh yes, Hanging Out). That night, while knocking back a bottle of whisky, Ellison watches the movies in his new study and realizes he’s seeing atrocities taking place. Consistent with the complicity/guilt mechanism of this kind of film, Ellison can’t stop watching.
The home movies are obviously important evidence, but after starting to call the police, Ellison decides instead to save the material for his book. While studying the films further, he begins to see a white-faced, long-haired figure, who looks like a member of Kiss, appearing in the background of some of the frames. On the advice of a bumbling deputy sheriff (The Wire’s James Ransone), Ellison calls up the local demonology expert, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who, in a consultation via Skype, tells Ellison this looks like the work of an ancient Babylonian “eater of children” who steals their souls by exposing them to certain images.
As an explanation of the movie classification system, this is novel (“Children under 12 may be stolen by demons”), but it’s a lazy exit strategy for the plot. (The introduction of a Babylonian demon in a horror movie is roughly equivalent to the “Then I woke up and discovered it was a dream” ending in elementary-school fiction.) For about half its running time, Sinister maintains some ambiguity about whether the evil is in Ellison’s sozzled head or in the supernatural world.
In the psychological horror tradition, there are lots of bumps in the night, often provided by a troubled child with night terrors, who keeps finding strange places to hide when he sleepwalks. Once the movie becomes a supernatural story, it feels more self-parodying than scary. The obvious advantage of a supernatural solution is that it leaves room for many Sinister sequels to come. Demons who have been hanging out since Babylonian times are notoriously allergic to closure.