I’d like to be put on record for saying that these days, movies with ghosts in them kind of suck. Just look at the glut of movies we’ve had in the past couple of years about ghosts, possessions, and haunted houses: “The Apparition,” “Possession,” “The Devil Inside,” and, of course, yet another installment to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good haunted house movie. “Evil Dead 2” is probably one of my favorite films of all time. The problem is that these recent movies, largely riding off the success of their predecessors, all pretty much look the same and carry the same underlying flaws. The characters are stupid, the scares are contrived and predictable, and the monster is usually some vague, unstoppable entity. With all this in mind, I was a little bit unsure of what to think about “Sinister.” On the one hand, it was written by C. Robert Cargill, a film critic whom I greatly admire (also known as Carlyle to anyone familiar with the review site Spill.com). On the other hand, I couldn’t help but shudder when I saw that it boasted itself as having the same producer as “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” (granted, I’ve heard the latter is pretty decent). So, does “Sinister” manage to break away from what we’ve seen before and give us some, God forbid, genuinely creative scares? Well, the answer is yes…for the most part.
We start out with a genuinely unsettling image. Through the reel of an 8mm camera, we see a family standing underneath a tree with burlap sacks around their heads and ropes around their necks. A large branch is then forced down, acting as a counterweight, which in turn causes the rope to be lifted and the whole family being hung slowly and then the title appears in the bottom corner of the screen. We are then introduced to Ellis (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who has struggled to write anything decent after his initial success nearly a decade ago. Dealing with growing debt and writer’s block, Ellis moves his family into a house that was the scene of a mass murder/abduction case which was left unsolved (the one we saw at the beginning). Motivated by his desire to have another hit, and by genuine altruism, Ellis sets about trying to discover what happened to the family and their missing daughter. Almost immediately after moving in, Ellis discovers a strange box in the attic filled with a projector and some 8mm film reels. These reels turn out to be snuff films, depicting not only the murder at the beginning of the film, but also a string of similar mass murders dating back to the 1960s. Convinced that this could be his big break, Ellis becomes obsessed with discovering the truth. However, it soon becomes apparent that these films pose a supernatural danger for both Ellis and his family.
Right from the get go, this film does a lot right. First and foremost, it manages to make itself interesting by adding genuine mystery to the horror. The film mixes elements of a haunted house movie, a slasher flick, and even the found-footage genre. The further Ellis’ investigations go, the more we start to uncover what could almost be called a supernatural conspiracy. This is one of the areas where the film deserves the most credit. Some genuine creativity went into this story and developing the mythology beneath the plot.
The movie often avoids the usual jump scares in favor of building up an effectively creepy, and even slightly surreal atmosphere. Sure, the film does still have some of the jump scares, but because they’re used sparingly, and actually done well, they have a greater impact. The tension is also amped up even further by the unique score of the film, a subtle techno rhythm similar to Trent Reznor’s score in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” which manages to carry a sense of paranoia and unease into moments of daylight in which we should feel safe.
One of the most irritating elements in the horror-genre film is the one-dimensional protagonist. The kind of character who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the danger they’re in, and just never realizes when it’s time to leave the damn house. Here’s what separates “Sinister” from a lot of modern horror movies: it has the crazy idea of giving us a likeable, reasonably intelligent protagonist. Ethan Hawke deserves a lot of credit in pulling off Ellis’ level obsession, obviously torn between love of his family and his fixation with solving this case. Plus, when things get really strange, he’s smart enough to leave the damn house.
Yet, in spite of all these strengths, the film ultimately runs into much of the same faults of the genre. While the only characters that actually hold a presence in the film are Ellis and his family, even the family is frequently shoved to the background. Most of the film is either Ellis in his office or walking through the house once the nightly spooky occurrences start to occur. To a degree this does illustrate Ellis’ sense of obsession and isolation, but it also means that not a whole lot happens in the movie…And it doesn’t help that, when it comes to the family, more specifically the kids, the acting isn’t what one would call top notch. Now, for the most part, this all wasn’t really much of a problem. In fact, it was somewhat refreshing for the film to stick with a sense of tension and paranoia by solely diving into the protagonist’s head…but then there’s the ending.
I don’t mean to say “Sinister” has a bad ending. It sticks to the film’s mythology, resolves pretty much everything, and still manages to end with a genuinely creepy final scene. Yet at the same time it also comes off as incredibly anti-climactic. There’s never really a definitive climax to the film, even with the growing sense of tension that seems to endlessly build. Instead, the movie just sort of ends, although compared to the cut to black at the end of every “Paranormal Activity,” it certainly is conclusive. It just sort of feels like the movie ends 10 minutes too early.
Walking out of the cinema, even though the ending had left a bad taste in my mouth, it had still been an otherwise enjoyable movie experience. The shame is that, when I really thought about it, I realized that “Sinister” isn’t really that different from all the other ghost movies we’ve been subjected to recently. Sure, it’s well written and it succeeds in delivering some well-done scares, but it fails to really break from the usual template. Ultimately, this movie consists of a lot of what we’ve seen before, just with a new coat of paint. That said, it is a very nice coat of paint.