Home movies are naturally creepy. There is something depressing about folks hamming it up while forever trapped in a grainy, bleached-out world that no longer exists. SINISTER opens with a super-8 flick that brings the medium’s innate moroseness to grotesque heights, as it happens to feature a family with sacks on their heads being hung from a tree. Some sort of makeshift execution device has been crafted where, as the tree’s branch is sawed off, the weight of the branch dropping raises the squirming family off the ground and to their final Kodak moment. It’s a grisly way for a movie to introduce itself and an early indicator that SINISTER aims to live up to its name. What could be more disturbing than witnessing an entire family killed together? Later in the film we’ll find out; witnessing an entire family killed together in front of their Chihuahua!
ETHAN HAWKE plays dishonorable dad Ellison Oswalt who moves his unsuspecting family into the house where the murders took place. We’re clear on his motivation (Ellison was a once celebrated true crime writer who has fallen out of favor and is looking for his next inspiration) but his reasoning is foggy. The killer of the family was never caught and one child was never found so the house’s heinous history is still an open wound. Who would bring their kids into a place like that? Can’t Ellis’ research be done anywhere considering it mostly consists of pinning string to a map and writing questions on Post-it notes? Ellison knows his family is bound to find out but he lies to them just the same and it’s suggested this is not the first time he has put work ahead of them. Hey, I’m down with an unlikable protagonist, I’m just not sure I’m down with his wife being presented as a wet blanket nag when she has every reason to be pissed off. Moving sucks.
Ellison’s theory that living in the crime scene might offer him insight pays off in spades when he finds a box full of snuff flicks in the attic made by the killer! What a break! Sure, this is clearly invaluable evidence to the murders of dozens of innocent people but by sharing it with the authorities, he’s jeopardizing his book so he keeps it to himself. He’s obsessed, not obsessed enough to watch all the movies in one sitting, which by the looks of it he could, but obsessed just the same. The more he watches the more his life crumbles and the more he has to deal with scorpions, snakes, invisible dancing children with circles under their eyes, stay-at-home actor VINCENT D’ONOFRIO and his daughter painting on walls other than those she has been given permission to paint on.
SINISTER contains brief moments that are sublimely scary. When we first catch a glimpse of what’s breeding the horror, it’s a vague, bone chilling image. But the more things come into focus the harder I found it to swallow (which is strange because my gullibility is of legend.) HAWKE is great but his earnestness tends to highlight the multitude of shortcuts and contrivances. (How convenient that an ancient deity just happens to resemble a modern metal-head’s SAW-friendly wet dream.) The wrestling flavors of deadpan gritty thriller and broad horror fantasy don’t so much clash as beg to be better stirred.
Can I get nit-picky? When Ellison’s family moves into the house months after a notorious slaughter has taken place, I get that the tree remains in the back yard to inform us of where we are, but why the hell is the branch that was sawed down still hanging off of it? I’ve learned to let bigger issues than that pass in order to get my scares on but I’d be lying if I said that dead branch didn’t get stuck in my craw. It drove me nuts. In fact, I still want to jump into the movie and drag it off myself. Maybe it’s me. I have been on organizing tear lately but still…even if a family was not hanged on that tree, human behavior dictates that somebody would do something about that branch! It’s dead! I should concentrate on the score. The score is cool.
If you are a fan of supernatural flicks this is worthwhile for the handful of times it hits the nail on the head but honestly I could never completely fall under its spell. For me it was like the devil laughing in my face but with spinach in his teeth.