Think of the children!: A critical review of “Sinister” (2012)

Are people going to remember cinematic horror in the early 21st century as the era of black-and-white faced ghouls? The Babadook, the Jigsaw puppet thing, that Darth Maul guy from “Insidious”…well, I guess he was black-and-red, but you get my point. Anyway, “Sinister” is no different. In fact, the rumor is that writer-director Scott Derrickson wanted the creature behind this feature to look like Johnny Depp in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He changed his mind, of course, and went with the black-and-white option. Was it the right choice? I don’t know. As it stands, Mr. Boogie–as he is called–is rather a timid affair, which is unfortunate because there’s a solid psychological horror film underneath this jump scare nonsense.

For those not yet in the know, “Sinister” is the story of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who has decided to move his entire family into the house where another entire family was brutally murdered some years ago, presumably because he’s never heard of the Amityville Horror. He intends to research the murder and write a new bestseller about it cos that’s his thing. His first piece of research falls unexpectedly into his lap, or rather, into his new attic; it’s a film projector and a box of super 8 films that appear to depict not only the previous murder in the house, but other murders stretching back about 50 years.

Of course, a box of film mysteriously appearing isn’t the only weird thing happening in the house. Oswalt’s daughter is drawing creepy people on the walls, his sleepwalking son keeps waking up screaming in increasingly inconvenient areas, and snakes and scorpions are dripping from the walls. Oswalt starts watching the snuff films and hitting the booze looking for clues, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Juliet Rylance). Oswalt links the murders together and begins to suspect a single serial killer is responsible. A local occult professor (an uncredited, but fun to watch, Vincent D’Onofrio) suggests it’s something a bit older.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot to like about “Sinister,” enough that you can recommend it to your friends. The cast is good, Hawke in particular. I love Hawke because, whether your movie is artsy, weird or kinda crappy, he’ll act in it and he’ll do a bang up job. As a fraying-at-the-edges writer, his only weakness is a script that occasionally leans toward silly clich├ęs.

Also, the film is curiously Lovecraftian, not just because the possible identity of the malevolent entity is an ancient deity, but also because Oswalt is an academic hero. Stitched inside his over-sized sweater and possessing all the physical prowess of a soggy tissue, he both lives in his head and is in over it. I like seeing a sloppy and intellectual hero rather than the smug youths or initially skeptical law enforcement agents who often populate these films. Unless I just like seeing a hero who understands my deepest fear: having to give up a professional writing to teach an English class.

The movie sounds eerie and looks good–at least, it looks like a good horror movie. The lighting is scarce and moody, and it’s usually coming from an outside source, whether it’s the blinding glare coming from an open window or the cool glow of lamplight just off screen, suggesting that there is nothing bright or beautiful inside the house or inside the frame.

But what spoils it for me is the children. As soon as we see the ghosts of the children, also creepily photographed and done up in murder makeup, prancing about onscreen, it kind of kills it for me. For one thing, part of the initial strength of “Sinister” is that it feels like a true story. It’s all about truth: a true crime writer being told not to disturb the pleasant cover up of a small town. And as long as the possibility remains that Oswalt is just a boozed up and stressed out writer over-enthusiastically pursuing a story, the movie is psychological horror. Its shocks are suggestive, uncanny and unexplainable. When the kids show up, it’s a rather familiar ghost story. A well shot ghost story, with good actors, but one that increasingly relies on jump scares over atmosphere.

For another thing, there is something almost goofy about watching Oswalt stalk around his house at night, brandishing a baseball bat and completely failing to see pale children with burn scars, knife wounds and Kubrick stares just kind of hanging out in his living room. If only we could join him.