“Sinister” breaks no new ground as a supernatural horror movie, but it’s wonderfully atmospheric, it has a couple of really good scares, and it mixes its shocks, special effects, and makeup work with a surprisingly engaging mystery. As is the case with most mysteries, however, the buildup is much more satisfying than the explanation, which in this case seems rather arbitrary and speculative. I, for one, would have preferred a more psychological approach. Sure, evil deities and lost souls are effective, but when you delve into the human mind, the dark possibilities are endless. And we all know that what you don’t see is infinitely more frightening than what you do see. It’s not the discovery of what made a noise in the attic; it’s the thoughts running through your head as you go to make that discovery.
The central character is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a writer of true-crime novels. He has a track record of repeatedly moving to cities where high-profile murders have taken place, and of dragging his wife and two children with him. He has consistently made enemies with various police departments, not only for being nosy but also for making them look bad in his writing. His first book, published ten years earlier, was a great success. His second and third books, however, were heavily criticized and not taken seriously. He initially deluded himself into believing that it wasn’t the fame and fortune that motivated his writing, that his greatest achievement was in making readers aware of these horrific crimes. That’s what he said during a television interview for his first novel. He solemnly watches that interview on a VHS tape, which is only one of several tapes onto which his television interviews have been recorded.
The Oswalts’ new house was the site of a grisly murder – a family that was hanged to death from a tree limb in the backyard. For obvious reasons, Ellison neglects to inform his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), about this. While settling in, Ellison discovers a box up in the attic, one containing reels of Super 8 film, all labeled with a title and a year, and an antique home-movie projector. Upon setting up the equipment, he discovers that each reel consists of disturbing murder footage, in which the victims are members of a family. Although each murder is separated by time and geography, all the footage has somehow ended up in a box in Ellison’s attic. Who shot these home movies? Are the murders the work of a serial killer? How is that possible, given the fact that the first movie was shot in 1966?
It isn’t long before Ellison starts to notice a pattern, not just with the murder cases, but also with the Super 8 footage. For one thing, each victimized family would always have one child unaccounted for. That’s what brought Ellison to this new town in the first place – to solve the mystery of the hanged family and to discover the whereabouts of the missing daughter, Stephanie. Furthermore, each reel of footage shows the image of a demonic symbol, as well as the vague presence of some sort of figure with an inhuman face. At this point, Ellison has recruited a young, eager-to-please deputy (James Ransone), a fan of Ellison’s work, to assist in gathering information. He also has two streaming internet chats with a college religion/cult professor named Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose dialogue consists entirely of expository information about an obscure pagan god known as Bagul.
Much of Bagul’s significance to the plot has already been spoiled in the ads, although I’m going to keep my mouth shut in the off chance that you’ve managed to miss them all. I will say that much of the film involves Ellison walking down dark hallways as he investigates strange noises and inexplicable occurrences, including the appearances of a scorpion and a snake. It also involves the slow disintegration of the Oswalt family, the teenage son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), suffering from sleepwalking and night terrors and the young daughter, Ashely (Clare Foley), eventually blamed for painting a picture on a wall outside of her room, which her parents have forbidden her to do. There will be a lot of fighting between Ellison and Tracy, who correctly accuses her husband of putting his work about his family.
“Sinister” has its fair share of popout scares, but that doesn’t mean we’re beaten over the head with them. The film is deliberately paced, the suspense allowed to build in agonizing increments. I’ve always appreciated this approach, simply because the idea of something happening is typically much scarier than when something actually happens. The only real disappointing aspect of this film is the ending. It’s not so much that it’s inappropriate, confusing, or offensive. It’s just that the solution isn’t worthy of the mystery; what we ultimately learn about Bagul, the murders, and the missing children feels strained and routine, which is to say that they doesn’t allow for a narratively organic climax. At the very least, there’s the final shot, which builds a tremendous amount of tension before going for the jugular.