Horror — like porn and Adam Sandler movies — is one of those divisive film genres that people tend to either obsess over or avoid completely. My own opinion lies somewhere in the middle: I rather like being scared witless, but don’t find too many movies that succeed at it.
Part of that, no doubt, is being a jaded old critic. Watch enough horror flicks and you get to know the spook-house tricks: Here comes the sudden loud slam on the soundtrack; next is the tight closeup followed by something jumping in from just outside the frame; oh, and here’s the anticipated moment of shock that will be dropped, only to sucker-punch you a few seconds later. It’s no surprise that horror movies play best among a younger demographic, where they can still throw their creaky old curveballs for strikes.
There are movies out there that know how to freak you out, how creating an atmosphere of terror involves mood as much as moves, how what you don’t show can frighten as much as what you do, and “Sinister” starts off looking like it might be one of them. Ethan Hawke stars as a nearly washed-up true-crime writer, so desperate for one more best-seller that he moves his family into a home that was once a crime scene. Oh, and he doesn’t bother to inform his wife (Juliet Rylance) of the fact that a gruesome and unsolved murder took place in their backyard.
The writer finds more clues than he bargained for when he discovers a mysterious box in his attic containing a bunch of Super 8 home videos with titles such as “Pool Party” and “Barbecue” showing various families being creatively murdered, including the former residents of his new home. Cue the screaming nightmares for his kids, and the mysterious things that go bump in the night. The presence of “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum should give you some idea of where things are heading.
Hawke and Rylance bring some depth to their roles, performing at a higher pay grade than this flick deserves as a couple whose marriage is shaky enough without the kids trancing out and drawing gnarly pictures on the walls. The scenes where Hawke’s author pours himself some whiskey and forces himself to watch the creepy snuff films are truly scary, partly because of what we see on the screen, but also thanks to Hawke’s convincingly spooked reactions.
Director Scott Derrickson seems to have learned a few tricks from David Lynch, as he cloaks the home’s hallways in impenetrable murk, while the specter of Stanley Kubrick’s classic “The Shining” also looms large, sharing an obsessive writer protagonist who deliberately puts his family in harm’s way for the sake of his career. Hideo Nakata’s “Ring,” with its notion of film as a medium for the transmission of evil, also inevitably springs to mind.
Excellent influences for sure, but you don’t want to invoke directors like that unless you’re really going to deliver the goods. Derrickson, however, blows his great buildup when it comes to the reveal, and the film takes a final-act turn into slasher-schlock territory with a ghost-faced baddie named Mr. Boogie and some mumbo-jumbo about Babylonian demons. Still, at least there’s no Adam Sandler.