It pains me to say it, but scary movies haven’t been scary in years. There are a few exceptions, like The Collector and Insidious, but other than that modern day horror films have relied on nothing but cheap "boo" scares and mindless gore to qualify them as "scary". We can now add Sinister to the short list of true horror films.
The story of a down on his luck writer (Ethan Hawke) who, in a desperate attempt for another shot at fame, moves his family into a house that was the scene of a disturbing quadruple murder, and the youngest daughter of the victims has gone missing. He plans to investigate the crime and get a new bestseller out of it. Once he starts to look into the details he discovers a box of 8mm films in the attic that chronicle not only the home life and deaths of the family that resided in his new home, but other families and their brutal murders as well. The further he delves into the mystery the more disturbed he becomes and he begins to see visions of a demonic faced man in his evidence, and even around his home. Is this spectral demon real, or is it just his imagination?
I won’t ruin it for you all, but this creepy character study is truly disturbing. It’s not exactly gory, but some truly effed up stuff happens in this flick (that lawnmower scene in particular). Thankfully the screenwriters don’t rely on blood and guts to tell their story like most modern day slashers tend to. Instead the script focuses on the deteriorating mental state of its lead character, played with a surprising amount of earnestness by Ethan Hawke, and the effect it has on his family. One of his kids begins to have night terrors, one begins to draw pictures of the missing girl and claims to have talked to her and his wife threatens to leave him and take the kids if he continues to pursue the story that is unraveling his family at the core. It’s nice to have a movie as interested in building character as it is in freaking out its audience.
Director Scott Derrickson, who helmed two (IMO) overwhelmingly awful movies recently (The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still), seems to have learned from his many mistakes in the past and created a truly effective film, which is more than I can say about his past efforts. Derrickson and fellow screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Massawyrm from Aint It Cool News) have crafted a taut story that puts its characters through an emotional wringer, as well as developed a unique take on the overused ‘found footage’ genre by having the lead character actually find the footage in question. It’s a clever device that provides some of the film’s most disturbing moments. Bravo sirs.
And then there’s the character of Bughuul/Mr. Boogie, the villain of the piece. We don’t get to see much of him and I’m thankful for that. I’ve always felt that in order to keep a character like this scary you shouldn’t overuse him/her, and it looks like the filmmakers share my opinion. We catch brief glimpses of him here and there popping up in the most unlikely of places. We never really get a detailed explanation about who he is and why he does what he does, but I think that keeps him more mysterious, and therefore more interesting. In the original Halloween did we really need to know why Michael Myers was stalking the babysitters or couldn’t be killed? Not really, and the film benefited greatly from the lack of exposition (until the sequel ruined it).
I also loved the strangely industrial/ambient musical score by Christopher Young, but in the days after seeing the film I learned that most of the music used were by indie bands and not the composer himself. Mildly disappointing as I was (at the time) glad to hear Young taking a different approach to his craft.
I will say that there are a few flaws. I couldn’t stand the deputy character, played haplessly by James Ransone. He came off as a complete moron and never convinced me once that he was a cop. Plus his final act is so damned convenient that it was almost laughable. The movie also tends to drag out the dramatic scenes and a couple of them are horribly redundant.
What we’re left with is a surprisingly intelligent and thoroughly creepy film that has one of the ballsiest endings I’ve seen in a long while. I never thought the story would go to the places that it does. I admire it for going straight for the jugular. I hope Sinister ushers in a new era of horror films that actually deliver on their promise… to make me piss my pants.