I enjoy watching Ethan Hawke getting the shit scared out of him. He spends much of Sinister in this mode, so I enjoyed the film, to a certain extent.
Sinister is a kooky stew of horror themes, including the isolated writer, found-footage deaths, haunted houses and scary children. They are presented in a sporadically creepy fashion by director Scott Derrickson, with Mr. Hawke at the center of it all, expertly hyperventilating.
Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime author 10 years removed from his last big success and looking for inspiration. He moves his family into a house where another family was hung from a tree in the backyard. Derrickson actually starts his movie off with the image of the family being hanged; it's just one of the film's many haunting images.
Oswalt finds a box of home movies (along with a rather disgusting scorpion) in the attic, and sets about watching them. This is the first of many bad decisions Oswalt will make. (Actually, it's the second if you count Oswalt moving into this creepy house in the first place.) The movies are snuff films compiled since the '60s, and they totally suck to watch. One depicts a family being drowned in lounge chairs in their pool; another shows a different family having their throats slit. Oswalt gets the notion that perhaps he should call the police—but fame beckons, and he concludes that all of this will contribute to one helluva book.
Oswalt, like many horror film protagonists, is a genuine idiot.
As the horror factor ratchets up, Oswalt sticks around the house. His young son crawls out of a box screeching, looking not unlike Linda Blair doing the spider-walk thing in that cut scene from The Exorcist. However, Oswalt just puts the kid to bed and goes back to watching snuff films.
A local deputy (James Ransone) steps in to help Oswalt with some fact-finding. Turns out the murders are all connected in a way that should provide Oswalt with yet another reason to move out. Instead, he stays.
That same deputy connects Oswalt with a professor type (Vincent D'Onofrio) who informs him that symbols found at the murder sites are connected to an ancient monster called Bughuul that eats children's souls. Upon hearing this, Oswalt has another cup of coffee and continues his research.
As I stated before, Oswalt is a genuine idiot.
Derrickson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has a gift for telegraphing his scares ... yet still making them scary. He'll put Hawke's head in a dark frame, letting you know damn well that something else will soon appear. It appears ... and it's alarming. He'll offer a moment of hesitation when you know a jolting sound will occur. That jolt eventually comes ... and it's still freaking scary.
My face went cold many times watching this movie. People around me either got up and left, or started crying. A horror movie that makes people cry gets high marks from yours truly.
Hawke does terrified with the best of them. Think of his looks of horror while observing Denzel Washington breaking rules in Training Day, or that panicked expression on his face as things spun out of control in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. He's got a top-notch freaked-out face, and that look is employed well in this movie.
As Oswalt's stressed-out wife, Tracy, Juliet Rylance ruins just about every moment of the film she occupies. Her role isn't written very well—she's the typical "I just can't take this anymore!" spouse. That said, many better actors and actresses have risen above the material when given poorly written characters. Rylance is a trumpet with a stinky sock stuck in the bell.
As the two kids with a dad who blows at picking houses, Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley make up for some of Rylance's slack. Foley is especially good at occupying the stereotypical "creepy daughter who talks to ghosts" role. See? Foley got handed a hackneyed role and made something out of it.
We only see the monster Bughuul in a few quick moments, but, boy, are those effective moments. There's a sequence involving a swimming pool that definitely had me walking with quicker strides to my car in the dark parking lot after the movie.
Bughuul is the sort of fake myth that is so rich, you will find yourself Googling him to see if he has an actual pagan history. He doesn't; he's completely made up.
This tells me that the folks who wrote Sinister are pretty damn sick in the head. That's an attribute that bothers me if the afflicted one is my next-door neighbor. However, when the guy making a horror movie is a little nuts, it's a blessing.