Scott Derrickson’s much-heralded horror film Sinister is unlikely to leave you sleepless. At least it didn’t me, and I’m a total wimp. The movie is full of feints, shocks and scenes of particularly perverse violence, but nothing about it is fresh enough to haunt you in the night. It’s predictable. Its underlying theme—about the corrupting power of images passed like deadly chain letters—is effective, but not as much as it was back when the Japanese film Ringu (The Ring) introduced it. That’s partly because the theme has been amplified so extremely; instead of a spooky girl climbing out of the television, Derrickson shows us home movies that are essentially snuff films. Lots of them.
Filmed images begetting more violence would seem a way to subvert the horror genre, except they’re presented almost as pornography. There is no lesson learned here. Not unless you count the one the jerk played by Ethan Hawke gets. He’s the ideal emotionally expendable protagonist, true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a guy with a whiff of Joe McGinniss about him. Ellison moves his whole family, wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and young son and daughter into a house where Very Bad things happened—a family of four was killed in a ritual act—so that he’ll have an easier time researching his next book. He’s so arrogant and self-centered he doesn’t consider how it might affect them, and that’s before more Very Bad things start happening. He’s not even partly apologetic when Tracy, a week into living there, finds out they’re living in a house that was the site of a notorious multiple homicide.
Well, it didn’t exactly happen in the house. “It was in the backyard,” Ellison defensively declares to Tracy. Right there in that tree yonder with the broken limb, where Mom, Dad and two kids were hung in a neat little row. (Tracy allowed Ellison to pick a house in this new town, sight unseen. Such passivity—hello Zillow.com—and her ability to sleep through epic occult-related happenings are among the movie’s weaker points. But Rylance looks cute in a tank top, which is what she’s there for.) Trouble begins up in the attic on the first evening, but Ellison stays confident he can get to the heart of the mystery, which he believes is manmade rather than supernatural. It’s been 10 years since his last #1 bestseller, Kentucky Blood, and he needs this book. “This could be my In Cold Blood,” he says.
His stubborn refusal to drop the case plays into one of our baser instincts, the desire to feel superior to a person who dares to feel superior to us. Which in turn makes it easier to see the person twist in the proverbial wind of horror. Hawke’s on-target performance only enhances the fun; he stops short of the full weasel but no one is going to weep over the fate of Ellison Oswalt if things don’t end well. As Naomi Watts did with the American remake of The Ring, Hawkes classes up the genre (and looks a lot more comfortable in these horror surroundings than say Daniel Craig did in the awful Dream House or Ryan Reynolds trying to pull off a credible killer in the remake of The Amityville Horror).
(READ: About why TIME’s Steven Snyder thinks Ethan Hawke is underrated)
The hangings of the previous owners come to, um, life on the screen through the magic of home movies. Hearing bumps in the night, Ellison finds a box of old Super 8 films and a projector in his new attic. The cans have cute titles like “Pool Party ’98”and “Hangin’ Out with the Family,” yet gruesome content involving families going back to the 1960s. In the ensuing days Ellison watches each and every one of them. Alone. He could go to the police with the movies, but he doesn’t because he’s too greedy for material.
Ellison yammers on about his need for a writerly legacy but also more tellingly, a hit, language that speaks as much to the addiction of success as the bestseller list. When in a low moment Ellison watches an old videotape of his smug younger self, at the pinnacle of his career, being interviewed by Tavis Smiley, I almost felt sorry for him. Much as I think Sinister has been over-hyped, director Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill, a movie critic for Ain’t It Cool News who has said he dreamed up the plot after seeing The Ring (at least he’s honest) definitely know something about the angst and squashed egos of word peddlers in today’s economic climate.
Some people will find it invigorating to watch various sets of hogtied parents and kiddies be drowned or burned alive or attacked with a lawnmower on “found footage” (how I long for found footage to get lost). I found it tedious, gratuitous and a number of other supercilious-sounding adjectives that will cause hardcore horror fans to dismiss me as a priss. Whatever. I stand by the objection to imitation snuff films. To their defenders I’d say, so fine, maybe faux snuff is your thing. But aren’t you sick of getting your horror yucks from spooky little girls with vacant expressions and tangled hair standing alone in rooms or hallways or landscapes? Do you never tire of a killer wearing a face mask? I’d have been a lot more terrified by Sinister if its Boogieman didn’t look so much like a sulky Gene Simmons in full stage makeup. Sinister simply shows too much, overlooking the main instructive of the Paranormal Activity franchise: a well played lump moving under the sheets can dissolve your spine.
The best part of the movie is the comic relief, all of which is movie-meta. Whoever is helpfully dropping off the home movies also provides an envelope at one point marked “EXTENDED CUT ENDING.” Then there’s the aw-shucks local sheriff’s deputy (the excellent James Ransone of Treme, who looks and sounds uncannily like vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan) with a fan boy crush on Ellison. He jokes that he’s Deputy So and So and Derrickson and Cargill never assign him any other name. Deputy So and So does lazy Ellison’s research for him, and even finds him a handy professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) who knows all about obscure symbols and creepy occult stuff and is willing to share. To enhance the claustrophobia (and likely to keep the budget down) Derrickson never takes us anywhere; not even to see the nutty professor, who provides his helpful background via iChat.
(READ: TIME’s review of Hawke’s last movie, The Woman in the Fifth)
To be fair, my expectations were unduly raised in advance that Sinister was not just better than the average horror movie but good because early reviews from horror fans were so glowing. Hawke’s participation didn’t hurt either; he’s an Academy Award nominee. Perhaps this is like rushing out to get a Big Mac after hearing of reports about a new, delicious gourmet Big Mac being served somewhere. Instead I found the special sauce the same as it ever was, greasy and displeasing, like Hawke’s facial hair and the whole experience marked mostly by a queasiness you know you deserve.