“Sinister” goes through a familiar route we have encountered from countless horror films about houses of ill omen. As a matter of fact, it is quite predictable at times, so I knew what would happen next as soon as it got dark in the house in the movie. Some strange sounds are heard in the soundtrack, and our hero tries to find out where they come from, and, although there is a little light source available to him, he keeps moving and glancing around in the darkness, while it seems something is lurking around him to frighten him and us.
You probably think I am complaining, but I assure you that the movie is a more effective horror movie than I initially thought. It has a good atmosphere to unsettle us, and it has a solid scary tale which handles well its many genre conventions including ‘false alarm’. I must tell you that there are several false alarms in the movie, but, rather than depleting the tension in the movie, they instead help accumulating the suspense inside a suburban house which can look very ordinary under the sun when you see it for the first time.
Besides the fact that it is a cheap one, the main reason why a true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt(Ethan Hawke) decides to move into this house is that he wants to write a non-fiction book on a terrible incident which happened in the house not so long time ago. Oswalt scored big with his early book “Kentucky Blood” years ago, but, though he has published several other books, he is still struggling to reach to the level of his previous success. He needs to support his dear family, and he desperately believes his new book will help regain his past fame.
But he makes a very unwise choice. When he and his family come to the house, he does not tell his wife Tracy(Juliet Rylance) and his kids that they are moving into the very house where whole family members except one were horribly murdered by someone at that time(that family member is still gone missing, by the way). The town people know why he comes to their neighbourhood, and the town sheriff(Fred Dalton Thompson) is not especially pleased because he does not like to see his unpleasant unsolved case brought to the spotlight again by Oswalt. Unlike his deputy(James Ransone), who is eager to help Oswalt’s private research when his boss is not looking at him, he does not welcome him a lot on the moving day.
Everything seems to be all right for Oswalt and his family in the house despite the kids’ difficulty with adapting to their new environment, but they begin slowly to be influenced by its uncomfortable atmosphere. While confining himself to his office with the documents on the incident, Oswalt frequently hears strange sounds from the space above. When he looks around the attic, he comes across a mysterious box, and he becomes very curious about the cans of super 8mm film reels in the box. They may look like plain home movies, but we can see that they are something which should be not played at any circumstance.
Now it sounds like a worn-out horror story, but the director/co-writer Scott Derrickson knows how to hold our attention while building the sense of mounting dread around the characters and their space. The movie sets an ominous tone right from the start with its striking 8mm film footage opening scene, and it keeps going on with the series of distressing and disturbing moments in the house. While constantly checking the film reels which turn out to be not as mundane as they look on the surface(they are labeled as “Pool Party”, “Barbecue”, “Picnic”, and so on), Oswalt discovers something weird and ominous in these found footages. His wife later becomes angry about his lies about the house, and his kids start sensing the sinister mood of their house even though they are not allowed to go into their dad’s office and see what he is working on.
And Oswalt gets more obsessed about the case. Although the possibility of grave danger becomes more apparent to him as he attempts to dig deeper into the case, it is not easy for him to resist the chance of his next success even when he becomes far more disturbed than before while a bottle of whiskey is always ready besides him. Ethan Hawke is effective as a desperate man pressured and cornered by his obsession, and Juliet Rylance matches Hawke as an exhausted practical woman who has already run out of the patience with a writer husband she loves. With their co-child performers(Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley), they convey to us well the uneasiness between their characters, and we come to fear for them as the story gets darker.
While the movie mainly focuses around the house, its supporting characters provide the welcoming respites from the accumulating tension in the story from time to time. Fred Dalton Thompson does a nice job with his functional character who turns out to be more considerate than we think, and James Ransone is amusing as a well-meaning deputy sheriff who wants not only his favorite author’s sign but also being mentioned in the acknowledgement section of Oswalt’s future book. In his brief but crucial uncredited appearance, Vincent D’Onoffrio is a college professor who gives Oswalt the valuable information which might provide a possible supernatural explanation for what is really going on in his house.
“Sinister” is a horror film fully operated by its genre conventions, but it works well in its boundaries. If you are a seasoned movie audience like me, you can easily predict what will happen in the end, but you may appreciate how it works. It hints to us what it will show to us, and it does deliver as much as it promised to us – as it arrives at its inevitable ending which has been dreaded rather then expected from the beginning.