Sinister seemed, at first, like it might be a serious contender for best American horror film in recent memory. As I stated in a previous post, the film had an inordinately high rating on Rotten Tomatoes in the weeks leading up to its nationwide release (although that may have been based on a very small number of reviews–I’m not certain). The trailer also looked promising, if more than a little bit like the overwhelmingly mediocre Insidious.
But I should have read more reviews, I think, before assuming that it was going to be the next Ring.
Now that opening weekend has come and gone, Rotten Tomatoes offers a more reliable picture of the film’s reception. What was 100%–after select screenings early in the year–plummeted in October to 63%. And while I’m not one to let critics decide for me–I’m one myself–I can’t help but feel cheated by the overly positive handful of reviews I did read prior to seeing the film.
The plot is familiar enough [spoilers ahoy]. Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer who moves his family into the house where a grisly mass-murder was committed. He neglects to share this tidbit with them, preferring instead to embark on the lonely quest for facts about the strange circumstances of the killing while his family–all of whom know about the murders but not where they happened–deals with the increasingly weird domestic situation (the older son’s night-terrors, the younger daughter’s predictably morbid wall-paintings). Ellison discovers a series of similar murders around the country, all with the same MO: a whole family is restrained and murdered, except for one child, who goes missing at the time of the killings.
It is revealed, through the requisite conversation with a skeptical university professor (clubfootedly portrayed by Vince D’Onofrio), that the sinister (ho-ho) force behind the strange events and killings is none other than Buhguul (I spelled it wrong before, apparently), an ancient Babylonian demon who has a thing for stealing children’s souls. After this bit of information is dragged out, the film predictably spirals down through the normal pattern: the initially-disbelieving protagonist is forced to confront the reality of the ancient evil he is facing; a drastic change occurs that seems to resolve everything; and in the final moments it’s revealed that it’s too late for salvation, that the harm has been done, and that the whole bloody mess is (like the movie’s painfully formulaic structure) bound to repeat itself.
I’ve said a number of times that originality isn’t necessary for a story to be effective. I stand by that claim, but Sinister does so little to move the proverbial chain (take note-my one and only sports metaphor, ever) that even I have to admit how stale this routine has become. As trite as it is, though, the plot isn’t really the problem: this setup is perfectly fine, and it could have gone in some interesting directions. But the film is hampered by dull performances by most of the cast, especially Juliet Rylance, who plays Ellison’s wife. Her over-acted expository dialogues with the kids sound like she’s reading the ingredients from a can of soup. The only bright spots are James Ransone, who plays the bumbling but amusing deputy, and Hawke himself, who does admirably well in the role of an otherwise utterly unremarkable horror protagonist (who apparently only owns one cable-knit cardigan and no other heavy clothing of any kind).
But worst of all, the scares are just not scary. I suppose this movie might frighten people who don’t often watch horror. Certainly, the film reels that Ethan Hawke’s character is constantly watching, which depict the murders being committed, are somewhat disturbing, particularly the lawnmower one (oops, spoiler). But the jump-scares are achieved through a combination of shoddy fast-edits and a ridiculous, nonsensical soundtrack. I swear, there are times when I couldn’t tell if the music playing was supposed to accompany the scene I was watching, or if Ethan Hawke was actually listening to some weird distorted choir music while viewing home movies of serial murders. Other times, the scare was achieved simply by cranking up the volume, a lame tactic that’s becoming more and more common in contemporary horror.
And the antagonist, Buhguul, was almost a non-presence. When he did show up, it seldom frightened, only startled. His appearance is far from frightening (in some scenes he has kind of a Brandon Lee/the Crow thing going on).
There was really nothing to commend this film beyond Hawke’s performance. Yes, as some Rotten Tomatoes reviewers have noted, there are some disturbing images; but this alone can’t be the measure of a successful horror. It needs substance, and Sinister just didn’t have any. 72/100.