Director Scott Derrickson shows a great deal of potential in his new horror film Sinister. He chooses interesting angles and framing techniques that pay off for him in a big way and give the entire movie a sense of dread. Now we just have to wait for his writing skills to catch up.
Derrickson’s film is plagued by the issue that has been haunting the horror genre for years now: it’s way too damn generic (and the fact that I wrote about this exact same problem just a little over a month ago only bolsters my case). Just as we’ve seen many times before the protagonist is a writer, in this case a true crime writer named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), on the trail of a mysterious mass murder. As he goes through the evidence, he begins to find a supernatural bent to the case and suddenly finds himself way in over his head. Throw in the obligatory demon expert (Vincent D’onofrio, who only appears via webcam) and a couple of creepy kids (Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley) and you once again have the exact same story that has been dished out time and time again. And there’s only so many points that can be given as freebies just because a film isn’t a remake or a sequel.
Instead of the story, it’s actually the direction that provides most of the tension and scares in the movie. Taking advantage of the fact that every horror movie nowadays relies on cheap jump scares, Derrickson frames his subjects in a pocket of negative space, making you wonder when something is going to spring on to the screen. As a reflex your body tightens and you gain focus, trying to prepare for the scare ahead, but more times than not Derrickson just does it to mess with the audience. Even better, whenever you do decide that it’s okay to relax the filmmaker scolds you with a moving face in the still frame of a video reel or a photograph. It’s borderline exploitative and you’d think it would get old quickly, but it honestly works throughout. It bolsters the few scares the movie has while also keeping your attention.
Because he is in practically every scene and he’s working from a less-than-stellar script, Hawke gets a lot of Sinister thrown on to his shoulders, but he actually carries the weight quite well. The character of Ellison goes back and forth occasionally on the likability scale, from when we want him to keep digging into the case and finding more clues to when he is selling out his values for money and fame, but Hawke is both talented enough to flow with the character and has the charm needed to restore the movie-goer’s feelings about him. We buy his steadfastness, his stubbornness, and his terror in the face of the film’s freakiest moments.
There are many things that I liked aboutSinister, but I still couldn’t give it a positive review in good conscience. There are so many amazing avenues that the horror genre can go down, but Hollywood seems intent on going down only three of them (and when they do they don’t even bother to take some interesting side streets). Slow down the number of demonic spirit movies, start thinking twice before settling on the “kids are scary” idea again, and start coming up with something new.