Sinister is the 2012 murder mystery with a heavy dose of the paranormal that took the world by storm in, well, 2012. It’s a Blumhouse joint starring Ethan Hawke, and this thing has some talking points, so let’s get into it. And remember -though Sinister may not be the most underground horror movie of all time, there are a cornucopia of spoilers below, so don’t @ me if you haven’t seen this and have something get ruined.
Reviewed by: Jake
True Crime novelist with a power-name, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), moves with his family into a home in Pennsylvania to work on his newest book. Nobody’s happy about it. His kids are pissed, his wife just hopes he hasn’t moved them into a home near a murder-house, and even the local fuzz are agitated because they don’t want him cracking things open and disparaging their work. He immediately finds a box full of old Super 8 film in the attic and plays them to see a series of hardcore snuff films, including the family who previously lived in this house, who were all hanged from the tree in the backyard.
As he works to uncover the mystery and crack the case so he can write the biggest book of his career, odd things start to happen. His son starts having intense night terrors and his daughter takes creepy wall drawings to the next level. With some digging, he realizes the films depict some sort of sacrificial killings, with symbols pointing towards some old Babylonian god, Bughuul. The apparent paranormal attacks get worse and worse the more Ellison learns, and finally he decides to get the hell out of dodge, packing his family up in the middle of the night and returning to their old home.
When they arrive, he receives a call from the deputy who was helping him gather info for the book, who informs him that the common thread between all of the other murders were that the family had previously lived in one of the houses of a family who was killed. In all instances, one of the children went missing. He suggests that Ellison actually put his family in danger by moving away from the murder-house. As he learns this, Ellison notices some green oobleck-looking shit in his coffee and passes out. He awakes to see his daughter with an axe. She kills the whole family and is taken away by Bughuul. The end.
What the Movie Does Right
Thing prime this movie does right are the snuff films that tie the plot together. These are nightmare fuel. They are visceral, unsettling pieces of voyeuristic gnarliness. The movie opens with one of these, showing the family being hanged from the tree. It is a hell of a tone-setter for the film, and they arguably get worse from there. Each film leads-in with an unsettling quiet, showing a family going about their lives. Then, a hard cut occurs and the crackly Super 8 shows the family captive and murdered in a fashion that ties into the activity they were engaged in earlier in the film. There is a family that is having a barbecue, and they are trapped in their car to have it set ablaze. There is a family having a pool party only to be tied to their patio furniture and pulled into the swimming pool to drown. Additionally, these tapes are all named in a sickly humorous way. That family at the start of the film? Their Super 8 is called “Hanging with the Family”. Jesus.
This movie is also pretty unique. At it’s best, it doesn’t feel all that different from something like Se7en, with a murder mystery that just so happens to be absolutely terrifying and sadistic unfolding before your eyes. Also like the aforementioned movie, there is a twist in this one that isn’t half bad. While it might not leave us with one of the most oddly quotable lines of all time, the idea that Ellison unknowingly placed his family in the hands of Bughuul is effective when it’s revealed.
Finally, the soundtrack in Sinister is nuts - in a good way. It has an odd, quasi-industrial quality to it that is extremely effective at making you feel unsettled. Listen to this and tell me you get the warm fuzzies…
Didn’t think so. That’s good horror.
Also, Ethan Hawke turns in an expectedly great performance, but it’s worth mentioning.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Sinister has some of the most preposterously terrible jump scares in recent memory. We are not anti-jump scare at A-Z Horror, and I feel I need to also mention I was the one most bothered by these among our group, but there are three ultra-stupid jump scare scenes in this movie, and I’m putting them on blast.
The lawnmower snuff film scare - this is probably the most memorable/noteworthy/biggest jump scare in the movie, but it’s also one of the most unacceptable. Leading up to this, we’ve seen quite a few of the kill videos and until this point, the movie’s soundtrack has mostly blended in with the tone of the tapes. In hindsight, you realize it’s non-diagetic, but in the moment it aids in the creepiness of the set pieces. Then there’s this piece of fuck. Creepy, albeit restrained soundtrack in the background blends with the film reel noise of the Super 8. The lawnmower moves through the darkness at an increasingly awkward and unnatural speed. All of a sudden a body lie in its path, accompanied by a gigantic yell from the soundtrack. Fuck you. This did not need the additional jolt and all it does is add to the fact that there was a good implement in place (the sound of the projector) that would have been creepy on its own merits but you have to draw attention to the scare and to the non-diagetic soundtrack.
The phantom kid scare - There is a part of this movie where Ellison walks through his house at night while the phantoms (?) of the missing kids from the other murder cases run through the halls. It’s creepy because there is an effective element where Ellison is in normal speed, and the kids are running but in slow-mo, so it provides a strange vibe. Then, out of nowhere, a little girl sticks her little phantom face into the camera, jump scaring the shit out of you. Yet Ellison doesn’t even notice. This was a jump scare strictly for the audience. There was zero impact on the film. This is as cheap and bad as it gets outside of doing it as the last frame of the movie.
Bughuul final frame scare - Yep. They went there. Fuck you. Hard.
Jump scares aside, there are some dumb plot elements in the film, including the convenient explanation of the son’s apparently documented night terrors that is brought up after the movie is able to get a jump scare shot in. It just makes it obvious how this film was at least partly written to guide the viewer through an experience where “x” number of scares needed to happen. That does not for a good plot make.
There are more, like the inclusion of Vincent D'Onofrio in a cameo just to shoehorn in the Babylonian deity part, which he doesn’t explain at all anyway. Ultimately, the movie just kind of shits all over the excellent premise and world it builds with some extremely excessive bottom-barrel audience formula stuff, but it luckily doesn’t totally butcher the entire experience.
Story: 7.5 - high-level, this is an interesting and relatively innovative murder mystery with a pretty novel twist.
World-Building / Immersion: 4 - I had major issues with some of the plot issues and inclusion of some insanely-awful jump scares in the film. Net-net, I found myself thinking about the “why” of all of that way too much, and it took me out a lot.
Scare-Factor: 6 - The snuff films in this movie are horrific. Truly some of the great horror fodder we have seen this decade. Everything around that is a detraction.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - Bughuul really doesn’t look very good, does he? And despite being very interesting sounding, the score for the film suffers a little bit due to the phasing that happens where you go from having it be an unnoticeable yet creepy part of the background to the primary driver for a shit scare.
Overall: 6.5 - This is a recommend, for sure. The movie has a lot of interesting elements to it and it is one that you should see as a horror fan, but I do find that the experience starts to drop off with multiple viewings and also with the use of one’s brain.