Do you believe in Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? Maybe the Tooth Fairy? You’re going to need an even higher level of suspension of disbelief in order to stand behind Lionsgate/Summit’s supernatural Sinister, the latest genre offering from Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson. While the chiller will cloud your mind with extreme visuals and a brooding score/sound design, you shouldn’t be tricked into thinking this is a good movie – because it’s not – yet there’s something there that will resonate with viewers well through the night. I guess success is measured in dollars, right? Good or bad, Sinister will be the next Insidious.
The film follows Ethan Hawke as Ellison, a true-crime author clinging on to his 15-minutes of fame from a book published 10 years prior. He moves his family into the house of a grisly unsolved murder where a family was collectively hung from a tree in their backyard. He hopes to solve the crimes and return to the limelight that he so desperately wants to rekindle (even at the expense of his own family). While moving into the house, he discovers a box of 8mm videos in the attic that all depict a different family being murdered execution style: a hanging, a drowning, a burning and more. Within the footage lurks a creature, a ghoul called “Mr. Boogie”. The further he investigates the worse things get in the house…
… but the structure of Sinister is absolutely infuriating, and unsurprisingly falls into the same trap that Exorcism of Emily Rose did. I call this “stop and go” horror, a film that continually takes the viewer out of the experience in order to sit them down and explain it. It’s like a sales pitch mixed together with a cool slideshow presentation. The only difference between Derrickson pitching this in a conference room with scary footage is that the conference room is replaced with a poorly dressed house (it’s understood that they just moved in, and are poor, but the house looks like a cheap set) and Derrickson is replaced by Vincent D’Onofrio, a demonologist named Professor Jonas. The viewer is continually removed from the haunting visuals to watch as Ellison and Professor Jonas/his wife/Deputy Dewey (not really, but yes, really) torture them through exposition-heavy scenes that literally walk them from A to Z. It gets so bad that the audience is explained the demon’s (also known as a Ghoulie) entire motive, which in itself is absolutely ridiculous. Also, the way Ellison reacts make little sense. His reactions to some of the horrific things don’t even come close to, say, Nicolas Cage watching the 8mm footage in 8MM, and for him to continue to live in that house while he owns another house doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why put his family through all of that when he witnesses stuff that would scare most people into a coma?
And here’s the frustrating conundrum:
Sinister is stupid. So incredibly stupid. But it IS SCARY. SUPER SCARY. Does that make it good? Absolutely not, but it does suggest that there are some reasons to see the film. The discovered 8mm footage is haunting and disturbing as hell, there’s a lawnmower shocker that was easily one of the best scares in the past few years, and all of the footage of the ghoulie will make your skin crawl (It’s just so hard to get behind when Ellison prints out a screengrab of the ghoulie, pins it on his wall, and stares at it like it’s just some dude in a mask). The design of the ghoulie is absolutely astounding and, until he comes full frame and center, he’s absolutely terrifying. This is all enhanced by one of the most brilliant score/sound designs in recent memory. Some of the horror elements in Sinister will leave you shaking and it’s definitely the kind of film that resonates with viewers as they’re lying in bed that night. Albeit, it’s all a sham (cool parlor tricks); it would be a tragedy to call it quality horror.
To recap, Sinister is a plot-laden mess that requires an incredibly high amount of suspension of disbelief. The best way to describe it is 8MM meets Paranormal Activity. In an odd turn of events, this film is still highly recommended for those seeking one good scare and an unnerved stomach, it’s highly effective.