By Gary Murray
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance and James Ransone
Written and directed by Scott Derrickson
Running time 110 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Modern horror films cover a vast swath of cinema. Today, it comes in forms such as torture porn (Saw) to faux documentaries (Paranormal Activity) but the basic elements of scaring people were laid down starting in the silent era. One of the oldest ideas of cinema terror is the ‘spooky old house’ such as Hold that Ghost, 13 Ghosts and Amityville Horror. The latest to take on the idea of the haunted house is Sinister.
Sinister takes the motif of the ‘spooky old house’ film with some more modern touches. Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who is working on his latest non-fiction tome. He moves into the actual house of his latest family murder, trying to get close to his source. The family was killed in the backyard. The local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) thinks that Ellison is a hack who gets his facts wrong. He wants the writer to leave town.
Ellison keeps the truth of the house from his family which includes his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley). Trevor is a twelve year-old who gets night terrors and Ashley is just a sensitive little tyke.
On moving in, Ellison finds a box in the attic. It contains some canisters of films and an old-style projector. Ellison threads up the film and plays it. It is the hanging of the family in the back yard. The other films are of other murders—one family burned to death in a car and another dragged & drowned in the pool. He also notices a shadow which may or may not be a person in the background. Ellison starts to think that he sees this demonic darkness in every movie, either in a reflection or silhouette.
Ellison befriends the local deputy (James Ransone) and gets the young man to help him in his investigation. Ellison begins to think that all of the films are connected to the murder he is researching. Then the house begins to reveal its secrets.
This film is the Ethan Hawke show. While there are others in the cast, the main focus is on him. It feels almost as if the film becomes a distant relative of The Shining, where one is not truly sure about what is real and what is going on in the psyche of our protagonist. It is real or is it something in his mind?
Fred Thompson has what is basically an over-blown cameo. He gets two scenes to make a point that no one trusts the investigative journalist. Just about any person in Hollywood could have done this trite little part.
As the mom of the piece, Juliet Rylance gets to be the voice of sanity. In the end, she just wants to protect her kids. She is the first person to sense that something is wrong and her demands of getting out are almost ignored by everyone involved. The two young actors who played the kids both keep their creep on and we keep guessing which one is going to help the ghouls in the freak-out terror that always ends these types of flicks.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson has a nice grasp of tone and setting in making Sinister. He keeps all the traditional horror beats in place, the right scares and jumps that are designed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. This is not a film or gross-out special effects but more of a subtle horror, almost of a by-gone era. This is in no way a classis horror, but it does have some classic horror touches. It is more The Woman in Black than Nightmare on Elm Street.
When leaving the screening, someone asked what I thought of the film. I said, “Another example of stupid white people who don’t get out of the house.” But, if anyone had one ounce of sense, the movie wouldn’t have happened. Remember—in the horror world, it takes idiots to become slaughter.