It happened again. When will I learn, dear readers? When will I learn. Here’s how it goes: I see a movie trailer. An intriguing, thrilling scary movie trailer and it fills me with hope. With promise. With the kind of optimistic expectation I’ve felt before and once again, it sucks me in. Somehow it makes me believe that against all odds, against years of experience, against the better judgment of my own black, jaded heart, this one will be great. It will rise above the others in plot, in character development, in its story arc and it will scare me. And once again, the movie itself lets me down.
Sinister appears to have it all – a driven, distracted lead character, a couple of precocious children, a distraught spouse, an eerie, seemingly haunted house (in which atrocities have taken place), the dead souls of children past, and one fierce-looking villain. And the truth is, Sinister does have it all. It has it all and even a bit more. It just doesn’t know what to do with any of it.
It begins with the Oswalt family moving into a new home. Ellison (Ethan Hawke, who now sounds like he smokes ten packs of cigarettes daily – his voice is wrecked), we soon learn, is a true crime writer. He finds some interesting, unsolved case, moves into the neighborhood where it happened, conducts his own investigation and writes a book about the whole thing. He’s done this thrice – the first time actually managing to solve the murder and bring about justice – the other two times, he got it wrong and led officials down the wrong path, all but ensuring that justice would never be reached. This time around is different, he assures his wife, Tracy (played appallingly badly by Juliet Rylance). This is the book that will redeem his career, that will get him a movie deal, the National Book Award, a talk show circuit, wealth, fame, prestige. This book will be his legacy. Without his family’s knowledge or consent, he moves them into the very home in which the murders have occurred. Four members of the family who’d previously inhabited it hung in the tree in the backyard and the young daughter, Stephanie, missing since that day. Ellison sets up his office and begins work that first night, ready and eager to claim his ticket to stardom.
And then, roughly 15 or 20 minutes into it, Sinister slows down. Like, way down. It gradually becomes painfully, boorishly slow. The majority of the story unfolds through home movies Ellison finds in the attic – reels of super 8 film watched on a projector. Which wouldn’t be terrible in itself if there were just a few minutes devoted to this, but nearly ALL of the action occurs in these home movies. Which gives Sinister the feel of watching a movie about watching movies. I very quickly grew tired of watching Ethan Hawke stare at the projections on his wall. There are a few cheap shots throughout, sudden loud noises or flashes of a demonic face that might make you jump. But Sinister never gains enough momentum to make you really afraid. There is no real suspense because most of it is time spent watching Hawke watch amateur snuff films. This kind of detached slow reveal prevented me from connecting enough with the story to ever feel scared.
The villain – an evil demon called Bughuul dating all the way back to Babylonian times – is hardly even in it. We catch a few mere glimpses of him during the home movie-watching and a couple more flashes later on but there is no interaction between Bughuul and Ellison and only one very brief encounter between Bughuul and one of Ellison’s children at the very end (literally, the final scene). Which, again, kept me so detached from him that it was impossible for me to find him frightening or intimidating in any way.
The end is the film’s only saving grace. Or, it would be if I hadn’t seen it coming from an hour away. If you plan to see Sinister, please stop reading here. I’m about to unfold the entire not-so-complicated plot.
So, a family is murdered in the backyard and a little girl is missing. Ellison sits down to watch a reel marked “Hanging Out, 2011” and after a few minutes of family fun in the backyard, the film cuts to four people being hung from a sturdy branch. Little Stephanie and the probable killer are not in sight. Ellison jots down the obvious questions: “Who’s running the projector?” and “Where is Stephanie?” These seemed like stupid questions nearly from the beginning to me. Isn’t it obvious? Okay, at the immediate start, I thought it was the killer taping the grisly scene and the abducted kid was off-camera somewhere. But shortly after Ellison’s first video chat with Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio in a brief cameo) wherein we learn that the demon is Bughuul – eater of the souls of children – I began to think that the abducted child must be the one running the show at Bughuul’s bidding. And surprise, surprise – I was right. We never see Bughuul interact with either of Ellison’s children but we do see a painting of his face made by Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, on her bedroom wall. Which, of course, leads one to believe she is his next chosen victim. But she never seems afraid or taken in with him. In fact, she and brother Trevor appear entirely unaffected by the move into the new home (with the exception of Trevor’s night terrors, which have increased in frequency since moving in, but, which, he never remembers). Why are they unaffected? Oh, that’s right. Because NOTHING HAPPENS to anyone. Ellison watches some disturbing home footage and hears a few bumps in the night. His wife freaks out for no reason I can fathom and they pack it up and leave.
Which is where it finally becomes mildly interesting, now roughly 85 minutes into its 110 minute-length. Or, it would become mildly interesting, if you haven’t already guessed at what’s to come. Ellison realizes it’s the missing kid running the camera but only moments before being drugged by his baby girl, who promptly ties him up with her mom and brother and kills them all with an ax. She’s then carried off by Bughuul into the netherworld to join his other claimed souls. And that’s the most we see of him.
I like the ending. I like the story itself and I even like the main character, a man so driven by his desire for success and recognition, he risks his family and marriage to achieve it. And I like the idea of Bughuul, ancient demon-like entity who feeds on the souls of children. What I don’t like is the story’s execution. It leaves its audience too detached, too removed from the characters, the villain and the story itself to ever evoke a proper scare.
So, for now, my bitter, disappointed heart and I shall await Hollywood’s next attempt. And try not to get our hopes up.