Certain things are a given in this world, and high on that list is the fact that I know to let my skeptic-o-meter kick in whenever I’m told that a horror movie is “really scary.” And when those claims of “heart-stopping terror” are being bolstered by folks who don’t much like horror pictures as a rule, I know to shift my skepticism into high gear. With that in mind, I wasn’t expecting all that much from Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, and that’s mostly what I got. The most enthusiastic thing I can say about it is that I’ve sat through worse — much worse — and I’ll probably sit through worse again in about a week. But that’s hardly an endorsement. It’s more along the lines of, “Oh, go ahead and see it if you want to.” (I’d love to see that on a DVD case.) And I’ll give it credit for taking the idea of “found footage” and working it into a straightforward plot. I’ll also be glad to credit it with creating a brand new critical term, since now it can truly be said that Vincent D’Onofrio “Skypes-in his performance.” Otherwise, this is OK stuff that you’ve seen before — often in much better movies.
Ethan Hawke (apparently shoring up his horror movie cred after Daybreakers) stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime novelist who’s spent the last 10 years trying to regain the luster of his big breakthrough best-seller — and mostly succeeding in becoming a self-absorbed dillweed with a drinking problem. (Think bargain-bin Jack Torrance.) In a last-ditch effort to come up with a hot book, he moves himself and his family into a house where a grisly multiple murder took place. No, of course, he doesn’t tell wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) anything about the family that were all (but one) hanged in the backyard. (And, yes, she’s understandably peevish about the whole thing when she finds out.) The local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, who you’d think ought to be touting the value of a reverse mortgage) tries to chase him off, though one deputy (TV actor James Ransone) is star-struck by the famous author (and hoping for a mention in the new book).
Almost immediately, creepy things permit themselves the luxury of occurring. Things go bump in the night as things are wont to do in these movies — all of which are dutifully investigated by Oswalt in as much darkness as possible. (If there’s such a book as Light Switches for Dummies, this boy needs a copy.) Soon a scorpion in the attic causes him to find a cache of very short Super 8mm movies (improbably light-struck and mounted on absurdly big reels) and a projector (that looks like it was manufactured long before the advent of Super 8) to show them on. (This is the film’s “found footage,” which gives a new meaning to the idea.) Naturally, he watches them. (Why it takes him most of the film to go through them, I do not know.) Each little snippet is a kind of miniature snuff movie — all bearing dark humored titles on the cans that suggest standard home movies — depicting grisly murders, starting with the hanging he’s investigating.
This is creepy enough, but there’s something more that he notices and that causes him to go all David Hemmings in Blow-Up (1966) — a barely glimpsed face lurking in the background, on the edges, or in reflections. I say the figure looks a lot like post-nosejob Michael Jackson. (My wife disagrees.) And we see either too little or too much of him for it to work all that well. Worse, we find out way too soon that he’s called Mr. Boogie (stuntman Nicholas King) — a corruption of the name of a bogus pagan deity — and can only marvel that a research expert like our hero never even thinks to try the simplest websearch about him. Of course, that’s because — for all the movie’s The Shining and Blow-Up wannabe-ness — we’re trapped in one of those horror movies where people do stupid things to keep the plot going. The only nice touch this movie is sly enough to make sport of is the “why don’t they just leave” business, in a twist that owes a lot to The Ring (2002) and even more to last year’s Insidious. I don’t recommend it, but I don’t not recommend it. For me, it was sort of just there. Rated R for disturbing violent images and some terror.