The best, and creepiest, part of Sinister is the opening, which features a truly unsettling and bizarre act of violence. The imagery gets under your skin, and promises something truly haunting and unique and troubling.
Which makes it all the more depressing that the rest of the film is a very competent, very rote journey through jump scares and loud noises. That initial feeling that Sinister might be something dangerous, something odd and new, melts away, replaced with a slowly thickening pace headed towards reveals any involved audience figures out well in advance.
Ethan Hawke, rat faced and swaddled in big sweaters like a terminal patient constantly chilled to his bones, is a true crime author who has hit a rough streak. Perhaps his rough streak comes from the fact that he buys a new house in the location of the crime about which he’s writing - surely there’s a more economical way to do research. After a career-defining high, a book that smashed into the popular consciousness and impacted a case, he’s found it impossible to find a follow-up that hits the same way. He has taken his wife and kids to different towns, moving in down the block from crime scenes, disrupting their lives.
This time he’s moved them into the actual house where the opening murder happened, although he keeps it a secret. While they’re settling in he makes a strange discovery in the attic - a box full of 8mm film cannisters, dated back decades. When he finally watches one he realizes that he’s seeing previously unrevealed footage of the murders at his house.
This is an interesting conceit, and director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill are obviously attempting to use this literally found footage to get their otherwise traditional film aligned with that popular movement. The idea works, much in the same way Lovely Molly’s occasional jumps to first person POV works. Found footage can rarely maintain an entire film, so it’s smart to save it for just the scary parts.
It becomes a logistical challenge for Sinister, though, because the film requires Hawke’s character to not watch all of the films at once, or in a reasonable amount of time, but rather to dole them out over the course of the movie as needed to supply proper shock beats. The film’s plot has Hawke as an obsessive, slowly spiralling into an alcohol-fueled feverish fascination with the film... so why doesn’t he watch everything as soon as possible?
Such logic problems wouldn’t be an issue if the film worked in other ways. Characters don’t need to be likable, but Hawke’s character is almost hateable - he’s a selfish jerk who is hurting his family and who is stumbling through his latest book even after a supernatural entity has placed all the answers, on film, right in front of him. Cargill’s script is obviously going for a Stephen King-esque feeling, but King’s protagonists are rarely as irritating as Hawke. The Wire's James Ransone is delightful as a goofy local deputy, but the script has him revealing he's more than just a goofball by pretty much having him say he's more than just a goofball. And then there's Juliet Rylance as Hawke's wife, who is shoved into the usual shrill nagger role that we see in movies like this, except this time there's no way to not be on her side. Hawke is such an asshole.
I could have handled the shitty protag, but then the film edges into mystical territory as it tries to establish its main villain, an Evil Ernie look-a-like named Mr. Boogie. Vincent D’Onofrio literally Skypes into the film to deliver a ton of exposition about an ancient cult and a pagan deity who lives in imagery. At this point the film feels like its own sequel, like someone had made an effective and low-key Sinister 1 and now somebody was forcing extra mythology to explain it all in Sinister 2. There’s a real 90’s ‘Let’s force a new franchise character into existence’ vibe to Mr. Boogie, and the film doesn’t know how to handle him. He shows up too often to be effective, but is kept too mysterious to be interesting. Also, he looks like a heavy metal band’s attempt to create their own Eddie-like mascot. I guess this is where the 90s nostalgia starts in horror movies.
As Hawke watches the films scary things begin happening around the house. Derrickson paces the scares well; even though they’re all by the numbers and you can see them coming a mile away they’re effective enough. As a Friday night spook show, Sinister works. But the movie has ambitions to be more than just jump scares, and I wish it had met them. That opening scene is marvelous, an image that will all by itself raise the estimation of the film in years to come. If Derrickson had more like that up his sleeve, Sinister would have been more than competent. It could have been great.