Sinister is the best horror film in a long time.
That isn’t saying much. Horror is currently in a lazy, intellectually offensive place right now because more than ever before it’s marketed to idiotic kids who wouldn’t know a good horror film if it splattered them in the face. Sinister isn’t made for kids and it reminds me of a time when they used to advertise Stephen King books on daytime television. Horror movies back then weren’t just made for children.
The film opens in grainy 8mm film. There’s a family of four—husband, wife, two kids—hooded and bound. There are nooses around their necks, the ropes of which are loosely draped over a tree branch above them. We see a pole saw cutting another tree branch where the ends of the nooses are tied. As that branch goes down, the family is slowly strung up. It’s a pretty effective shot and by now most of you should already know if it’s the kind of movie you want to see.
Enter Ethan Hawke, his wife, and two children, who are moving into the very house where that family lived. Hawke is a true crime writer who dreams of becoming the next Truman Capote. He got a taste of fame and fortune a few books ago, but proved to be a hack in the time since. Somehow his wife doesn’t know the history behind the house they’re moving into, which I found to be kind of silly; there’s usually red tape involved when buying psychologically distressed properties, isn’t there? And seriously, how often has your spouse gone to buy a house without involving you in the transaction?
The first act of the film, as with any horror film with a superficially idyllic family, is fat and bloated (see: the film version of Pet Semetary). Hawke’s character stumbles upon a box in the attic containing a bunch of snuff films and a home movie projector. The film canisters are labeled innocently enough: Family Hangin’ Out ’11. Pool Party ’66. Sleepy Time ’98. BBQ ’79. And my personal favorite is Lawn Work ’86 as it makes shocking use of a Honda lawnmower. (I don’t think that was product placement, by the way.)
Hawke, like any smart person would do, calls the police. But when he’s put on hold, he see his best-selling book on a shelf and realizes his discovery is going to make for a hell of a book. So he hangs up. And we groan because we know there are going to be at least as many thin excuses to keep Hawkes and his family in danger as there are genuine scares.
Things do indeed get sinister. Following a lead provided by a typical movie deputy, Hawke gets in touch with an occult expert (Vincent D’Onofrio) who says the symbols seen in each of the films reference a child-consuming demon. Demon or not, considering the scorpions and snakes in Hawke’s attic, I would have moved out of that fucking house on day one. This isn’t much of a spoiler and I feel it needs to be mentioned: it’s yet another horror movie in which there are “spooky” children in it. I know I’m not the only one who’s getting sick of that trend.
At the end of the day, it’s almost a worthwhile picture, just a little slow. Yeah, the term the filmmakers would probably prefer is “suspense-building,” but I don’t know. It didn’t really work for me. There was hardly anything I haven’t seen before. The film is certainly a little creepy, but it isn’t exactly scary. Although I’m not entirely disappointed I saw it despite the predictable ending and the fact that it, like most horror films today, has nothing to say.
A lot of people complain they don’t like Ethan Hawke. I do. Gattaca is one of the better examples of science fiction in film and Training Day is nothing short of brilliant. Hawke is integral to those movies working. He’s capable of playing a kind of character few can pull off (or maybe it’s a character many don’t want to try to attempt), but it’s a necessary character for many films. Here’s a hint for moviegoers who don’t like him: a lot of the time you’re not supposed to like him. That’s why he’s good at what he does. I mean, did you ever see Tape?