Ethan Hawke has the worst home movies ever: “Sinister”

October 12, 2012

Movies are in love with themselves, and that leads to a lot of navel-gazing, but one trope that does have some power beyond the silver screen is our relationship with pictures. Still images capture the tiniest piece of a moment and then invite us to build our own narrative (read Errol Morris’ series in The New York Times for more of this), while moving pictures invite us into the story in a way that was impossible in the days when the written word was the predominant storytelling vehicle. So, yeah, it makes sense that movies would turn on their own medium. And the grainier the better, so it’s kinda surprising that it took this long to recognize that Super 8mm films are just the evilest fucking thing out there. Which is more or less what the new movie Sinister posits.

In Sinister, Ethan Hawke plays Edward Oswalt, a true crime writer, who has moved his family into the house of a family that was murdered—with the exception of the youngest daughter, who was kidnapped–some time earlier, by being hung from a tree in the backyard. Now, if that seems really messed-up, well, there’s a reason for that. As the movie gradually reveals, Edward had a massive hit with one of his books ten years earlier, but hasn’t been able to replicate that success, and he’s now in some dire financial straits.

Well, shortly after moving in, Edward discovers a box full of Super 8mm film cans in the attic (along with a scorpion, which should alarm him more than it does). Handily enough, there was a film projector in the box and Edward wastes no time firing that puppy up. What he sees are various acts of family annihilation that date back to 1966, and somewhat inexplicably are as recent as, well, the previous family’s murder.

Now, if horror movies have taught us anything it’s that writers are about one scary photograph away from losing their shit totally, and Edward is no exception. He begins drinking and poring over the movies obsessively, catching some sinister figure lurking in the background.

At the same time, though, things start getting hinky around the house. He hears footsteps coming from the empty attic, and pretty soon the rest of the house. Naturally, this happens in the middle of the night for maximum creepiness. Also, someone keeps starting up the projector and running those films. At the same time, his two kids begin to exhibit some disturbing signs. His son has night terrors and sleepwalks, while his artistically-inclined daughter starts painting scenes from the family-killing and the missing child on her wall. I won’t spoil the rest (though the trailers give some plot-points away), but suffice it to say Edward ‘s life begins to unravel as it becomes clear that this killer may be supernatural.

Sinister works surprisingly well for a mainstream horror movie. It doesn’t pull any punches and delivers nicely on pretty much everything it sets up.  Writer/director Scott Derickson begins with an unsettling image and maintains an omnipresent sense of dread. He’s also very good at wringing suspense out of the darkened house—where about 90% of the movie takes place, giving us a healthy dose of claustrophobia as well.

The movie also establishes Edward surprisingly solidly. This movie doesn’t work unless Edward makes some fairly reckless decisions—foremost among them, failing to turn evidence of a series of multiple murders over to the police—but the movie makes Edward’s desperation and desire to recapture his past success perfectly clear. In the lead, Hawke turns in a nicely-tuned performance, only occasionally going off the rails into overacting (one gets the sense he didn’t have to look far for character motivation). The movie also throws in some good performances by the supporting cast, particularly James Ransone as a weird Deputy Sheriff, who injects some welcome levity into all his scenes.

Unfortunately, none of this quite explains why the evil at the center of this movie decides to use an antiquated technology to carry out its nefarious plan. Sure, the film gets transferred to .AVI files , but the lion’s share of the heavy lifting is done by Super 8mm movie cameras. I mean, where did it even get one of those in 1998? Did it just want to brag to, I dunno, the demon from The Exorcist and the ghoulies from Poltergeist about how hip his murders look? “Yeah, Instagram is cool, but I went straight to the source, know what I mean?”

But aside from that (and a few logistical question the denouement begs), Sinister is still plenty disturbing. If nothing else, it makes the term “home movies” unsettling as hell.

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