Arriving during prime Halloween movie season, Scott Derrickson’s new film Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who stumbles onto the scoop of a lifetime in a box labeled “Home Movies.”  Of course that’s not all he stumbles on, but even though the film dredges up as many tired genre tricks as it can in 110 minutes, nothing can save it from its own abject awfulness.  David Edelstein recently wrote in his New York Magazine review (link: https://www.vulture.com/2012/10/movie-review-sinister.html)  that Sinister may have been the film that once and for all “made this lifelong horror freak abhor horror movies.”  While I won’t go quite that far, I will say that the 5 or so people who walked out of my theatre definitely had the right idea.

It’s really not worth rehashing Sinister’s flimsy plot; suffice it to say that it involves a series of whole-family murders in a series of interconnected houses, the last of which Hawke moves his family into at the start of the film.  Naturally, Hawke’s wife (played by Juliet Rylance) has no idea that their new home is the site of an unsolved mass hanging, and doesn’t question her husband’s increasingly poor decisions even as their son starts sleepwalking like Regan in The Exorcist.  After discovering the aforementioned box of old Super 8s, Hawke becomes obsessed with uncovering the link between the gruesome murders that make up the “home movie” collection.  Helpfully, he keeps us clued into his thinking early on by taking notes—like a dutiful film critic—while watching the snuff films, sharing such insights as, “WHY WOULD YOU FILM IT?”

It’s directorial touches like this that let you know you’re in for a major disappointment.  With Derrickson at the helm, however, this is no surprise; his last true horror effort, The Exorcism of Emily Rose [2005], was a similarly flaccid shock-fest that never got its act together, despite having Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson among the cast.  While Sinister’s one-word title is clearly reaching for the status of 2010’s Insidious (the two also share a producer), the difference between the two films could not be starker.  While both focus loosely on haunted houses and haunted children, Insidious boasted a concept that both paid homage to the great haunted-house films of the 70s and 80s (particularly Poltergeist, which Derrickson himself is unfortunately remaking) and that felt relevant to present-day concerns.  Insidious also built tension gradually and atmospherically and, when the time came for “gotcha” scares, they were ingenious and actually scary.

Sinister, on the other hand, builds atmosphere by dispensing with the usual narrative pleasantries—like a well-developed plot—and opts instead to assault us with Super 8 footage of twitching bodies and increasingly jittery close-ups of Hawke’s sweaty face and ever-present whisky glass.  Hawke’s character is poorly conceived and apparently subject to contradictory motivations: is he consumed by the desire for fame at any cost, or is he actually just a distracted family man?  Other elements of the story are similarly bungled: why doesn’t he watch all the Super 8 films at once instead of over a period of days?  Why doesn’t finding a scorpion in his Pennsylvania attic strike him as unusual? Why do Hawke and Rylance constantly complain about money when their last abode was an absurdly enormous mansion, which they move back into when the going gets weird?  Can they really have money troubles if they own a (second) house large enough to be a museum?

Vincent D’Onofrio appears briefly as an occult expert who tries to shed some light on things—only via iChat, inexplicably—and give some gravitas to the proceedings, but even two veterans of the Law and Order franchise (Fred Thompson also appears as a sheriff) can’t make Sinister believable, compelling, or scary.  By the end of the film, Hawke’s Super 8 projector has become a metaphor for the entire movie: it spins on regardless of whether or not anyone is paying attention to it, smacking the end of its reel against the desk over and over again, like some sort of half-hearted flagellation ritual.

At any moment, you expect Hawke to write on his notepad, “What am I doing in this film?” Unfortunately, all I could think was the same thing.

By Lita Robinson, 2012