An expert psychochiller starring Ethan Hawke as a Jack Torrance in the making.
Hoping to resurrect his career with a new book, true-crime author Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) opportunistically moves his family into a Pennsylvania home without telling them that its previous occupants were found hanging from a tree in the garden (save for the missing youngest child).
Once Ellison has discovered a box in the attic containing grisly home movies (depicting family slayings widely separated by time and geography), his research turns into an Oedipal obsession, and his alcoholism – along with other ghosts – returns to haunt the Oswalds, patsies in a scenario it will be too late for them to comprehend.
As with his previous film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, director/co-writer Scott Derrickson stages a conflict between rationalism and the supernatural, here replacing the hot potato of Christian faith with the mental fragmentation of the protagonist, who increasingly seems a Jack Torrance in the making. Indeed, Sinister is constructed around repetitions, not just knowing echoes of previous family psychochillers (The Shining, Paranormal Activity, Insidious), but also the bizarre serial nature of the murders themselves, immortalised in that boxed row of similar-looking film cans.
Yet if you think you’ve seen it all before, the terrifying metafilmic lesson here is that viewing can in itself be dangerous, even deadly. And yet there we are, eyes wide open, staring at the screen (and the screen within the screen), ignoring all the warning signs, watching someone watching horror and reaping the awful, inevitable consequences – one way or another – of curiosity. It is an ingeniously plotted film, blending ‘found footage’ with more conventionally objective camerawork, and luring us along with Ellison into its ineluctable (but still unpredictable) trajectory.
Here the preserved medium of cinema itself becomes a reflex for the ghostly entities that (maybe) inhabit the story, as though to suggest that merely watching this ‘moving picture’ (about a family moving house) may be enough to entrap anyone with their peepers fixed on all those flickery images, leaving no possibility of escape. That said, the mounting tension, creepy sound design and expertly managed jump-shocks will no doubt have many theatregoers averting their eyes in sheer terror.
Derrickson’s previous horror, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was not good.
Conventional perhaps, but also creepy and clever in equal measure.