Considering it was already reviewed on this blog when it came out in 2012 and was also featured on John’s favorite horror movies of the ’10s, the praises of Sinister have already been sung around these parts. One thing that stuck out to me about John’s original review is that he mentioned not seeing Ethan Hawke show up in things very often. That seems quite true of the period in which this film was made, as Hawke hadn’t quite rebounded with his Oscar-nominated role in Boyhood yet and was toiling in lower-budget obscurity. It perhaps speaks to Hawke’s current status that he doesn’t have nearly as much screentime in his more recent horror collab with Scott Derrickson, The Black Phone, but at least at this moment, we get a lot of Hawke doing a great job of grounding a movie with plenty of supernatural elements.
Sinister has a premise that feels familiar, and yet I can’t think of another movie that has a plot that’s that similar. Maybe I’m just thinking of all the various Stephen King adaptations that feature writers as their protagonists. Anyways, Ethan Hawke plays a true crime writer named Ellison Oswalt who has moved into a house that was apparently the scene of a grizzly murder a few years ago, unbeknownst to his wife (Juliet Rylance) or his kids. He’s moved to the house in the hopes of finding material for his next book, as it’s been years since he’s had a decent hit published. He quickly finds this inspiration when he stumbles on a box of old Super 8 film, which he starts watching after rigging up a projector. The first roll of film shows the family that previously owned the house being killed, in a striking image of the family members being lined up and hung on a tree branch in the backyard.
Ellison becomes obsessed with the various rolls of film in the attic, watching them over and over again, each of them depicting families that were murdered in various parts of the country. He starts trying to piece together any similar threads in each killing and finds that in each of them, one of the family members survived and that on closer inspection, there is a ghoul-like man known as Mr. Boogie lurking in the background. To get some perspective on what this all means, Ellison calls up a professor (Vincent D’Onofrio, in his infamous Skype-only performance) who explains that the figure may be an ancient evil god known as Bughuul who would kill entire families while eating the souls of one of their children. Despite seeing and hearing various startling things in the house at night, Ellison continues to gather as much material as he can for his book. However, once the line between the snuff films and reality starts to blur, he finally decides to move with his family out of the house, though his Buughul problems don’t end there.
Much like The Black Phone, I think the most striking thing about Sinister is just how well-made it is and that for the most part, its bare-bones $3 million dollar budget is never obvious. I think this comes from Derrickson having experience working in bigger budget movies (like The Day The Earth Stood Still or Dr. Strange) and being able to apply that craft to something on a much smaller scale. This is more or less a movie that all takes place in one house, but it never feels like it’s constrained in any way, perhaps because it incorporates just enough mythology and characters (like a true-crime enthusiast cop played by James Ransone) that there’s plenty to keep you intrigued in between the scares.
And the scares are pretty darn scary. This is definitely the kind of horror movie that relies heavily on certain audio or musical cues to evoke a jump scare. However, they’re mostly pretty effective, even though I’m sure watching Sinister would’ve been a bit more terrifying in theaters. But really the most compelling part of the movie visually is the grainy Super 8 footage that depicts the various different murders that Ellison is trying to connect to each other throughout the film. They’re striking in their bluntness, with each murder being unique in its own way but also nothing terribly fantastical.
Despite being a pretty easy movie to get invested in, Sinister does hit a lot of familiar horror beats, what with it featuring creepy kids, an author main character, and a literal boogeyman at the center of it. But it does just enough different to keep it from veering into cliché, if not reinventing the wheel by any means, so I can see why the movie wasn’t overwhelmingly praised at the time but also has its fans. It was also just nice to see that Ethan Hawke’s Blumhouse phase wasn’t a complete waste after reviewing The Purge a couple Shocktobers ago. Luckily, he’s far from phoning it in here, even if Vincent D’Onofrio literally is.