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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 09:40 am

Horrific Sinister succeeds despite flaws

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Ethan Hawke as Ellison in Sinister.

There is no question that Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is a flawed movie. While we expect horror films to test the boundaries where an audience’s suspension of disbelief is concerned, this movie obliterates it halfway through. And yet, the movie manages to keep us in its grip thanks to the pervasive sense of terror that Derrickson effectively builds on, up to its horrifying conclusion. Not only does Sinister contain its fair share of jolts, but it weaves a disturbing story that’s hard to shake far after its horrors have faded from the silver screen.

A never better Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a down-on-his-luck writer of true crime books who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade and is desperate for a taste of the limelight once more. Needing his family around him as he works, he moves them – long-suffering wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), teen son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) – all to a small Pennsylvania town where a gruesome murder occurred and remains unsolved. What he doesn’t tell them is that they are living in the house where the crime was committed. A family of four was found hanged from a tree in their backyard while the youngest daughter of that clan went missing. There were no solid leads in the case, and the girl seems to have vanished without a trace. Convinced that the local authorities must have overlooked something, Oswalt begins rooting around in old police files hoping to find the clues he can put together to solve the case and write a bestselling book about. However, he finds all of the information he needs in a cardboard box in the attic of his new home. It contains a projector and five canisters of 8mm film.

Once Oswalt begins watching these home movies, Derrickson reveals a series of horrors that cut right to the core of the viewer. Each depicts a family being slaughtered in the most hideous of manners, all of them taken advantage of while they’re asleep or rendered unconscious. The manner in which they are killed will test each viewer’s sensibilities as they linger on the edge of good taste. What is without question is that the horrors Derrickson has in store for us increase in intensity as the film progresses, causing us to dread each time Oswalt threads the projector. Yet our morbid curiosity ensures that we will be peeking through our fingers to see just what he has in store.

While the creation of place and mood is excellent and would not nearly have been as effective without the work of sound designers Marc Aramian and Dane Davis, the spell it casts is nearly ruined by a narrative gaffe that looms over the second half of the film. Upon investigating symbols seen in each of the home movies, Oswalt finds that he’s dealing with a Babylonian deity named Bughuul who, in the words of occult expert Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio), “eats the souls of children.” As any parent knows, this is a phrase that needs to be acted upon, meaning “GET YOUR CHILDREN THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” That Oswalt doesn’t, makes no sense. Derrickson doesn’t suggest Oswalt is losing his mind or that he is under the control of Bughuul. No, it’s just his quest for another hit that compels Oswalt to keep his children in danger, a reason that holds as much water as a holey tissue.

Still and all, I’m compelled to recommend Sinister simply because of the artistry involved. It gets viewers out of their comfort zones as it progressively and relentlessly preys upon our most basic fears. Be warned, this is not for the feint of heart, a warning that Derrickson would, and should, take as a compliment.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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