What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually, especially when it comes to horror movies. A title can conjure up all sorts of associations, and perhaps more-so than in any other genre, setting a tone is vital to horror. So the name of your film is quite important. Suspiria, for instance, is a great title, evoking the occult and otherworldliness of Dario Argento’s masterpiece. Audition also works well, being enigmatic, singular, intriguing. And for upfront audacity The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still takes some beating; the movie itself being as visceral an assault as the title suggests, no matter how accurate (or otherwise) it might be.
Sinister though? Hmm. An adjective by itself gives the impression of something ill-defined. Not only that, but if you’re aim is to scare your audience, you want to do better than just sinister, right? Sinister suggests something that’s unsettling or troublesome, but not mortally threatening. Something giving you the creeps or giving you gooseflesh is sinister. For a horror film, it sounds like a half-measure. It depends on your intent of course. Not all horrors aim to flat-out petrify you. Many of the best are content with a little unease. Quite what Sinister intends is a little unclear.
So we have the story of true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family, new home-owners looking for a fresh start. But Oswalt is keeping something secret from his wife and children; their new home is a crime scene. The previous occupants were all hanged in the back yard, and Oswalt is determined – from night one – to set about solving the mystery. He finds a box of old super 8 films (pretty much immediately). Setting up a projector in his office, he is horrified to discover that not only this most recent crime has been caught on camera, but so have several others dating back decades and spanning the continent. And as things start to go bump in the night, Oswalt is drawn further and further into the mystery.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson plays the Shining angle a little here, which is wise – the comparison is so glaringly obvious that he may as well confront it. Oswalt turns to drink, becomes isolated from his family, and by midway through Hawke looks suitably rattled and worn around the eyes. Yet Sinister is more indebted to the recent wave of Japanese horror than it is to Kubrick. In fact most of the staples of the last decade’s most prominent Japanese successes are aped in Sinister. A piece of technology turned unsettling by supernatural forces? Check. Ghosts who keep secrets? Check. Untrustworthy children? Check. Check. Checkcheckcheckcheck! You almost start to wonder if this is a remake you didn’t know about.
I like Japanese horror. It tends towards subtlety and intelligence rather than gore or false-jumps. A sustained level of dread and slow rising tension. Derrickson tries to emulate this. Long stretches of the film take place in the dark as Oswalt, disturbed from his work by noises in other parts of the house, creeps down dim hallways lit only by the light from his iPhone. However Derrickson is not above playing the kabuki “it’s behind you!” routine, squandering tension before he’s had the opportunity to ratchet it up. As such, Sinister never achieves the kind of nerve-shredding it openly wants to. Here’s a haunted house film where the ghosts are only too keen to show themselves.
Credit where it’s due; it’s a nice little puzzle, though one which is all-too-easy to put together long before Oswalt realises what the picture is. Hawke is solid and he carries the film, though he is never remarkable, and one gets the sense that this one’s for the pay cheque ‘til the next Richard Linklater project comes along. As a fan of all things David Simon, I was pleased to see James Ransone in a small role, one which delivers a few welcome chuckles amid the overall dour tone.
The rest of the family rarely get much of a look in. From the get-go we are made aware that all is not well in the household. Oswalt is on his last chance with his wife (Juliet Rylance), and there is a culture of secrecy between them all. This distance never really closes, and as such it feels more as though Oswalt is the one in jeopardy as opposed to all of them. I can’t even remember the kids’ names. And they’re all remarkably heavy sleepers. Daddy is left to go batshit through the night whilst everyone else sleeps soundly through all sorts of paranormal ruckus.
It all adds up to much of a muchness, never quite bold or confident enough to go for sustained intensity. The super 8 films are not scary, though they aim to be. So much found-footage has rendered them banal, even cliché. Whilst the extended night sequences become repetitive and are too littered with false-starts and half-hearted scares. And though the ending ties it all together, it is done with box-ticking inevitability, oddly matter-of-fact, safe in the knowledge that there’s always the option of a straight-to-DVD sequel.
Derrickson has everything he needs to present us a neat little campfire story, but the ingredients are in the wrong measurements. Too much of this, not enough of that. It’s no disaster, it just fails to be effectively scary, unique or memorable. At best (and all too infrequently) it achieves, well, sinister. Guess that name was pretty good after all.