Sunday 20 October 2019

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

A horror movie about a series of chilling unsolved family murders, Sinister extracts maximum impact from old 8mm footage of abhorrent crimes but is otherwise too reliant on standard genre clich├ęs.

True crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has not written a successful book in years. With financial pressures mounting, he relocates his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two young children Ashley and Trevor to a new community to research his latest book. He wants to investigate the unsolved death of four members of the Stevenson family, found hanging from their backyard tree. Their young daughter Stephanie was never located and remains missing.

Ellison does not tell Tracy they have moved into the actual Stevenson house where the hangings took place. Upon starting his research he finds a box with a Super 8mm projector and a set of labeled films. To his horror he discovers every reel depicts a different gruesome real mass murder of an entire family, dating back many years and each occurring in a different city. With daughter Ashley drawing spooky imagery on the walls and son Trevor suffering from night terrors, Ellison's life begins to unravel as he investigates the links between the murders.

Sinister fully exploits the inherent spookiness of old jittery films voyeuristically chronicling the lives and deaths of unsuspecting families. The premise is built upon an unseen murderer gleefully capturing crimes on film, and the scenes featuring the 8mm movies carry a disturbing impact and propel the core mystery, as well as providing a treasure trove of clues. Repeated exposure to the abominations infiltrate Ellison's mind and unhinge his life.

The parallels to The Shining are present but subtle, as Ellison starts to succumb to the pressure of writing and experiences difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson is more blatant about the price of chasing fame and monetary glory, Ellison seemingly driven more by greed than any noble pursuit of truth and justice for murder victims.

While the suspense level is uniformly adequate, Sinister is hampered by an ill-advised over-reliance on darkness, Derrickson allowing most scenes to languish in insufficient or misdirected light. As well, too many segments default to boring what's-that-sound investigations, Ellison skulking around in the blackness towards the next cheap jump scare. The two kids Ashley and Trevor both bring pre-packaged creepy tendencies to the table, which only serve to encourage lazy writing.

Ethan Hawke is a steady presence in the middle of the murky mayhem, never stretching but conveying ample creeping discomposure.

Sinister works its way to an ancient bloodcurdling being thriving on the destruction of families and children, the line between image and reality blurring into a continuum of horror. The film is a mixed bag of inventiveness, but the films within the film create a special whir.

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