'Sinister' makes for high-tension ride

atomictown.comOctober 13, 2012 

Sinister employs one of my favorite horror cliches: the academic expert who swoops in to make sense of all these senseless scares.

As a device, this expert is here to explain to the hero, and the audience, just what the hell has been going on this whole time — and what exactly is going to kill the hero if they don't step up their game. For instance (and all this stuff is covered in the trailer, so it shouldn't be spoilery), after noticing a strange symbol in several of the videos, Hawke gets ahold of professor Vincent D'Onofrio, who informs Hawke that it refers to an ancient Babylonian demon.

Without these experts, horror movies would be pretty terrible. Hapless man begins investigating a mystery, he's bedeviled by a series of inexplicable terrors, people abruptly die for some reason, roll credits. Huh. In other words, the entire horror genre would become Norwegian existentialist movies on the nature of life. OK, maybe this is one cliche that needs to keep on keepin' on. But as Sinister demonstrates, just because you're working with old tools, that doesn't mean you have to use them in old ways.

True crime writer Ethan Hawke has just moved his family into the home of a brutal, unsolved multiple murder case. His career's fallen on hard times, but he intends to write a new book about the crime.

When he finds a box of home videos taken of the murder — and four other slayings — he believes he's got a bestseller. But the killings have occult links. Soon, Hawke finds himself terrorized in his own home, uncertain whether he's going mad or being haunted by an ancient demon.

Which he learns about, as mentioned, by speaking with expert professor D'Onofrio. While this cliche has been replaced, to some extent, by the always-thrilling Google search, it remains such a useful tool for explaining why that mothman keeps creeping around in the bushes that it's still very common in the paranormal subgenre. It's normally just an exposition-dump — occasionally, the expert in question winds up murdered for their trouble — but in Sinister, D'Onofrio repeatedly reminds the freaked-out Hawke that all this demon-lore isn't real. It's just a bunch of old stories.

This is pretty funny, in a self-aware way, but it also underlines the idea that Hawke's just going all crazy like The Shining. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson is actually using the "helpful professor" cliche for something besides conveying a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about demons or dybbuks or axe-wielding Easter bunnies.

Derrickson's ability to recycle old trash into new fun embodies every element of Sinister. The look of the movie is arresting, in that Derrickson is probably going to be arrested for stealing unused scraps of old Nine Inch Nails videos. Yet, somehow that borrowed look isn't derivative, it's atmospheric and effective. The same is true of the story. Hawke is a writer in a spooky home. He drinks too much and might be crazy. In any event, something — be they ghosts or his madness — will hurt his wife and children. The only way this could get more like The Shining is if Hawke had a combover.

Yet, it doesn't feel like The Shining at all. It feels like its own thing. A high-tension, occasionally quite scary thing. One that makes great use of darkness and great use of the grainy snuff films Hawke finds in the attic. Derrickson is skilled with sound, too, using his soundtrack to blur the lines between the home movies Hawke watches and the world he inhabits.

Your mileage will depend in part on how you feel about this sort of horror movie, where there may or may not be a boogeyman, but if there is, he's going to have a very thin and very arbitrary back story. Sinister isn't too original in this department. It is pretty scary, though. Even if this subgenre isn't your cup of tea — and it isn't normally mine, especially — Sinister is a strong, gripping film.

Grade: B

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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