Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Writer-director Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and co-scripter C. Robert Cargill (the Ain't It Cool News staffer who pitched the story) clearly hoped to make "Sinister" an old-school horror movie, mining terror from classic haunted house scenarios designed to drive a desperate writer to "Shining"-style madness. Juice that formula with ancient deviltry laced with contemporary tech-paranoia and "Sinister" ought to look and play like lethal nightmare, in the tradition of John Carpenter's "Halloween." It doesn't. Derrickson and Company, lacking Carpenter's filmmaking chops and bone-deep faith in the genre, can't deliver the hair-raising goods. "Sinister" may make you jump at predictable intervals, but it never rattles your existential certainties the way truly subversive horror does.
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True-crime author Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) has moved his family into a new home, failing to mention that the previous tenants were murdered by hanging. Fact is, our hero doesn't much care what his long-suffering wife and kids think or feel; he's jonesing for a best-seller, having last hit the jackpot 15 years ago. Pretty quick, a mysterious box turns up in the attic, packed with an 8mm projector and cans of home movies with benign-sounding titles like "Pool Party," "Yard Work," "Sleepy Time," "Hanging Out With the Family." These turn out to be grainy snuff films, gruesome to the max, and soon Oswald notices disquieting connections with the unsolved murders he's investigating. Then, with the aid of computer technology, he discovers and extracts from the moving pictures a recurring image: a horrific goblin face as blankly malevolent as Michael's in "Halloween."
Mechanically cranking out a flatline plot, "Sinister" stops to dispense exposition at metronomic intervals, but never slows down for credible character development. Punctuating the scary interludes are several marital fights, some comic relief courtesy of a creepy local police deputy (James Ransone) and a bizarre Skyped-in cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as a professor of the occult. Just as I don't know why this downscale movie snagged respected actors like Hawke and D'Onofrio, I'm stumped by brief appearances, bookending the action, by Fred Dalton Thompson.
The film is sort of grabby so long as Oswald's engrossed in detective work, using computer technology to get under the skin of moving pictures, freeze-framing horror from flickering movies projected on a wrinkled white sheet. Something in us -- voyeurism? fear? -- craves to rupture celluloid surfaces to see what lies beneath. (Once, as Oswald looks away from a still displayed on his computer screen, a monster moves, autonomously alive in some unknown dimension.) These are nasty but challenging themes that David Cronenberg ("Videodrome") or Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Pulse") have metastasized into smart, visceral terror.
As primitives, we populated wild places -- caves and impenetrable forests -- with fearsome spirits, believing that demons of every stripe crouched in the dark to steal our souls. Now, horror movies suggest that we may have relocated our bogeymen (or in the case of "Sinister," I kid you not, Babylonian god Bughuul, Eater of Children) somewhere behind the screens that dominate our lives. What potential black magic, we wonder down deep in our lizard brains, is imbedded in the countless pixilated images we devour every day? "Sinister" never taps into the bone-deep frisson generated by Spielberg in "Poltergeist," as a little girl stares into an empty yet "inhabited" TV screen.
But I digress. Back in "Sinister" territory, electricity apparently hasn't been invented. The Oswald home is almost pitch-dark even at midday. Night after night our increasingly freaked-out writer prowls the place, spooked by weird noises; jack-in-the-box surprises; a scorpion, a snake, a black dog and a partridge in a pear tree. Surely all that screen-filling darkness must hide something unpleasant -- say, a dead white face -- but mostly that's a tease, pumped up by sounds of pile-driving thuds, metal-on-metal screeches, static-y crackles and pops.
Recall that in "Halloween" every frame was intelligently, perfectly composed.
Zones of darkness were an integral part of ordinary three-dimensional spaces;
that's how Carpenter bred horror: An area of the frame that seemed safe and
mundane could suddenly be infected by alien malevolence. "Sinister" semaphores
pedestrian scares, relying on things going bump in the night. It's knee-jerk
stuff, as opposed to the real deal, horror that decays our trust in normalcy and
teaches us that we cannot, should not, ever believe our eyes.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.