Sinister is the latest horror endeavour from director Scott Derrisckson, best known for his chilling masterpiece The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It is also the latest in a recent spate of horror movies in which disturbing footage is found; in many cases heralding the viewer’s demise. This sub-genre hasn’t really produced anything fresh since The Ring, and boasts a litany of hackneyed and contrived efforts like Area 407 and Chernobyl Diaries. Still, mostly on the strength of Scott Derisckson’s directorial stock, I was prepared to give Sinister a chance.
The film centres around Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a crime novelist who is seeking inspiration to revive his flagging career. At the beginning of the movie, we see Super 8 footage of four people being hung from a tree. Ellison decides to investigate these murders for his book, and thus relocates his family to be closer to the crime scene. Much closer, as it turns out. Unbeknownst to his wife and children, Ellison buys the very house in which the murders took place, and we see many (ahem) Sinister shots of the hanging tree through the kitchen window.
A host of interesting characters are introduced, including the disapproving sheriff (Fred Thompson), the long-suffering wife (Juliet Rylance), and the innocent children (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario). The plot thickens when Ellison discovers and ominous looking box labelled “Home Movies” in the attic, which contains a projector and several reels. Upon viewing the footage in his study, the writer realises that they in fact document the gruesome murders of four families, the most recent of which being the hanging which took place in his own garden. Realising that this might be his moment of opportunity, Ellison refrains from notifying the authorities, deciding instead to pursue an investigation himself for the sake of his book.
This is all very well. Ellison proves to be a relatively absorbing protagonist, as he grapples with various moral decisions which cause him to wonder whether his ego might be getting the better of him. In the course of his investigation, he notices some disturbing details in the footage, including strange religious symbols at each of the crime scenes, and a disturbing face which appears only for the briefest of moments. Strange things begin to happen in Ellison’s own house; he hears strange noises, and his children are subject to frightening night-terrors. The movie at this point is not blatantly supernatural, and one cannot help but wonder whether the pressure of writing a book and the disturbing secret which he keeps from his family may be getting the best of old Ellison. It’s at this point that things begin to go south.
On the advice of a local deputy, Ellison consults a religious professor (Vincent D’Onofrio), who divulges some disturbing information on a Pagan deity named Bagul, who purportedly eats children’s souls. The professor fears that Bagul may reside in the Super 8 footage and…blah, blah, blah. What a shame. From this point the picture becomes irritatingly supernatural, and ceases to be scary in any way. In the end, the only Sinister thing about this movie was the sad waste of ambiguous characters and atmosphere.