Though I consider myself an avid horror fan, I must confess that I approach the genre from a certain distance. Though I enjoy the sweet smell of terror as much as the next guy, what appeals to me most about supernatural thrillers is the idea of a storyteller capturing a specific societal angst, giving it a name, shape, and rules to which to abide so that we can come out the other end with a stronger resolve, awareness, and, dare I say it, sense of hope. I realise this interpretation of monster flicks puts me in the minority, but I honestly think the more cynical gore hounds among us are missing out.
Take Sinister, for example, a relentlessly scary movie that blends the intense rhythm of recent first-person thrillers with the nightmarish atmosphere of J-horror. The film was directed by Scott Derrickson, who gave us The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and co-written by C. Robert Cargill, who drew inspiration from a bad dream he had after watching The Ring (2002). To say their brainchild lives up to its title would be an understatement. Two thirds in, I turned to the person next to me to whisper, “I can’t take this anymore!”
The movie stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime novelist who, unbeknownst to them, relocates his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids to the scene of a gruesome killing and apparent kidnapping: a family was hung in the backyard of their new home with the youngest child never to be seen again. Ellison hopes to make his fortune by solving the murder before the police, which is why he doesn’t call the authorities when he finds a box of snuff films in the attic. Here is a rare found footage thriller that actually involves someone finding footage.
It’s worth noting that only the snuff films are of the first-person variety, allowing Sinister to bypass the awkward transitions between set pieces, you know, those silly expository scenes in which the protagonists shoot themselves bickering instead of saving the battery. The killing sequences are therefore distilled to pure suspense, as, whenever Ellison’s projector starts rolling, we know right away something horrifying is about to happen. In fact, the bit with the lawnmower had me begging for the movie to stop.
The present-day sequences also pack some effective scares, following the proud Hollywood tradition of mixing genuine threats with benign surprises that could have been avoided if the hero bothered to turn on the lights once in a while. In fairness, Sinister provides a legitimate excuse for all the fake-outs: Ellison’s son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) suffers from night terrors. That means he routinely sneaks around at night and executes weird contortions to scare the bejesus out of his dad. Yeah, it’s cheap, I know, but Derrickson got me every time.
Really, I remained onboard until the final act, which aims to shock us with a sordid revelation but only manages to drown us in its predictable cynicism. I now understand the need for a big twist ending in movies like Saw (2004). Without the catharsis of the hero somehow outsmarting the monster, creators are left with few options to pay off whatever momentum they’ve garnered. Unfortunately, the conclusion to Sinister won’t have you exclaiming, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this happened!” so much as, “A-doy!”
More to the point, it makes the whole experience feel like an exercise in cruelty, which to me also translates into a waste of creativity. From the long suffering Tracy to the endearingly tactless Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone), I rather like the way characters are constructed in Sinister. This includes the filmmakers’ metaphysical take on the boogeyman (though I found him scarier as the mysterious Mr Boogie than as the overly somber Bughuul). However, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, good horror flicks don’t tell us the boogeyman exists; they tell us the boogeyman can be killed. Sure, Ellison is a ripe bastard, and he deserves everything that’s coming to him, but am I really expected to derive entertainment from his misfortune?