It’s easy to see why “Sinister” (2012) came so highly recommended; this is a startlingly scary horror movie to which I’d give an 8 out of 10. I was tempted to give it a 9, but some subjective personal tastes prevent me from giving this unusually disturbing film a higher rating.
It’s frightening. The design of the supernatural Big Bad is quite good, despite its simplicity. This film succeeds in giving us an intimidating bogeyman. Far worse is his choice of victims and his modus operandi. I won’t say much here … this is a movie where we learn about the story’s antagonist because the protagonist is an investigator — true-crime writer “Ellison Oswalt,” wonderfully played by Ethan Hawke. I also won’t go into precisely how the baddie operates, because it’s just a little too dark to contemplate here.
It’s shot and scripted quite well … there are a number of nice touches, and the basic story is unsettling even by horror movie standards. A late twist about how the violence is perpetrated is telegraphed in advance, but it still gets under your skin. The directing by Scott Derrickson is spot on — the “jump moments” are cheap, but they still work. Derrickson’s and C. Robert Cargill’s script is smartly unnerving — especially with respect to how these crimes are perpetrated. (Yeesh.) And the use of unusual and disturbing music is quite effective. This film was the result of a lot of thought and effort.
Still, a few things suggested to me that this falls short of being a perfect horror movie:
- Common tropes abound. The most tired, to me, was the use of a horror writer as an ironic protagonist. That’s an overused device. The master himself, Stephen King, for example, has used this in no fewer than four novels and their subsequent film treatments, by my count. (Yes, Hawke here is a nonfiction writer instead of a novelist, but the principle is the same.)
- Hawke’s protagonist, as scripted, is pretty damned unlikable. “Deputy So-and-So” is his most important source, not to mention someone who shows him compassion when things get really tough. Yet he sticks with that insulting appellation, and even screens his calls, throughout the entire movie.
- The bestselling nonfiction writer here has no idea how to cultivate a source. (See above.) I’ve been a writer, in some capacity, for my entire adult life, and I started out as a paper jockey. You treat every source as important, even the crazy ones. It’s both good manners and proper professional conduct. And when you deal with any police officer, you’re especially conscientious if you’re smart — people in law enforcement are often (understandably) very sensitive about how they are portrayed in writing.
- Ellison Oswalt feels the need to move into a home where a multiple homicide was committed, in order to write about the crime? That’s just nuts, even by eccentric writer standards.
- He chooses not to tell his wife? I have never been married, but I know from both my personal and professional life that women get really, really pissed off when you neglect to tell them things that they think are important.
- Is Oswalt’s wife a Luddite who never googles anything? I moved to Virginia a year ago, and I STILL google my address because I keep forgetting my zip code.
- Oswalt expects no neighbors to share such information with his wife? (This is lampshaded a bit, as a child brings home the information from his school.)
Finally, there is one subjective matter that kept me from loving this movie — and it is admittedly a matter of taste. Even as a devoted lover of dark stories, my enjoyment is sometimes affected by films in which children are victimized. (I am referring here to the children depicted in the 8 MM (“Super 8”) film strips that are discovered by the main character.)
Yes, these are horror movies, and they are intended for adults, and we ourselves should be adult enough to recognize fiction as such. (Otherwise we can buy a different ticket or click elsewhere among Netflix’ options.) And plenty of great horror films feature imperiled children. “28 Weeks Later” (2007) immediately springs to mind for me, probably because it is a favorite. I think most other genre devotees would point to the universally recognized “The Exorcist” (1973). But in those films and most others, things were depicted … differently. (I’m being vague here for fear of spoilers all around.)
I’m a veteran horror-hound; I’ve routinely enjoyed films in which zombies or vampires wipe out humanity. But what I saw in “Sinister” was too dark even for my taste. This sort of reaction is rare on my part, but not unprecedented. “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005) and “Wolf Creek” (2005) both took violence against the innocent too far for me to really enjoy or recommend them. (Strangely, 1980’s legendary “Cannibal Holocaust” affected me little.) Yes, zombie apocalypses tend to be gory affairs, but they are almost always faced by grownups, who are unbound, and armed, and generally able to fight back.
I would really think twice recommending this to the casual filmgoer without a spoilerish hint about its content. Your mileage may vary.
Hey … if you really want a scary story, check out The Internet Movie Database’s trivia section for “Sinister” after you see the movie. Read how the “Pool Party” scene was filmed. That’s … that’s nuts. Nobody wants a director that committed. Somebody should have called OSHA. Seriously.
And here’s a joke for you. Given the “Super 8” films we see in this movie, wouldn’t it be blackly funny if this film were sequel to Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming “Super 8” (2011)? It’s all about the kids, right?