I might as well say it right at the top: SINISTER – the new film from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY producer Jason Blum – is not very…well…sinister. If we define the word as meaning, “ominous, forbidding, portending of doom,” the film starts well enough, with suggestions of dark and sinister events to come; but soon other words creep into mind: stolid, sluggish, tedious. Unfortunately, the word that will seldom if enter occur to you is scary. From opening titles to closing credits, SINISTER turns out to be a long, dull trek, with shudders that are few and far between.
It is not as if the screenwriters did not try. The opening scenes set up the story very well, cleverly using a confrontation with a local sheriff to lay out necessary exposition without resorting to any obviously expository dialogue. The sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is unhappy that true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is moving into town, with plans to dig up details on an unsolved murder that the local population would rather forget. Oswalt, we soon learn, had his fifteen minutes of fame ten years ago, with a book titled Kentucky Blood, and in a desprate bid to recreate that success, he has moved his family into the actual house where a mass murder of a family took place. (Three guesses on how well this will turn out!)
In a novel twist on the “found footage” genre, Oswalt actually finds some footage – old Super 8 millimeter films in the attic, portraying not only the murder of the family but other, earlier murders. With the help of a local deputy, Oswalt traces the connections, which eventually lead to suggestions of the supernatural: a child-like drawing indicates the presence of “Mr. Boogie” at the scenes of the crimes, and Oswalt sees a shadowy figure in the background of the home movies. This eventually leads to a Skype conversation with a college professor (an unbilled Vincent D’Onofrio) who serves as the traditional “Johnny Explainer,” elaborating on the mythology of an obscure diety known as Bughuul – known for spiriting children off to another realm and devouring their souls.
Unfortunately, the script of SINISTER trips over its own honesty. In laying out the clues, it provides a virtual roadmap for the conclusion; anyone paying attention knows exactly where the story is headed. Which might not be so bad, except that Oswalt for some reason cannot see what is obvious to us.
Seriously: each murder is distinguished by the fact that one family member, a child, went missing. Add that with the childish drawing of the murder, and the fact that Bughuul is known for corrupting children – and what conclusion does that lead you to? Similarly, Oswalt early on realizes that the victims in his current home had lived in a house where the previous set of murders took place. So is there any reason to be worried when Oswalt finally decides he’s had enough, and moves his family out of the haunted residence? Because, you know, if PARANORMAL ACTIVITY taught us nothing else, it’s that ghost are not restricted to specific locations; they target people, wherever they may go.
I’m sorry if all this seems spoiler-ish, but in fact this is just the way SINISTER is laid out. Morever, we have ample reason to see that Oswalt is setting himself up for a fall. Despite much talk about wanting to provide a good life for his family, and also about wanting to see justice being done, it is abundantly clear that the author’s real motivation is greed – a point underlined when he decides not to share his found footage with the police. You just know that kind of moral transgression cannot go unpaid. (And if you think there might be some sort of dramatic arc in which Oswalt learns his lesson, then you probably have not watched any horror films for the past fifteen years.)
Even with a running time stretched to interminable legnth, SINISTER never manages to tie all its elements together. Why Super 8? you ask. But you will not find out. Presumably we’re supposed to assume it relates to the time when the first murders took place, but why did the murders begin then? (One keeps supposing that the timeline will be pushed even further back, suggesting that these killings have been going on for centuries, but nothing every materializes.)
SINISTER is also plagued by the usual inconsistencies seen in the horror genre, in which things happen just because we need them to. So after learning that Bughuul is little known today because most images of him were destroyed by early Christians, we see Oswalt burn Bughuul’s home movies, only – you guessed it – to have them miraculously reappear. Guess Super 8 celluloid is more resilient than ancient frescoes and canvases!
All of this might have been at least partially forgiven if SINISTER had at least offered a few memorable scares, or at least a shiver or two. Instead, the 110-minute running time is padded with endless scenes of Oswalt wandering through the dark corridors of his suburban home, while the audience waits for something – anything – to happen. More often than not, the pay-off is the sight of the Super 8 projector running by itself, suggesting that Baghuul really really likes to watch his old movies again and again. The only truly disturbing scare is not directly associated with Mr. Boogie: Oswalt’s son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) is genuinely unnerving during a sequence in which, suffering from night terrors, he emerges unexpectedly from a box, as if undergoing an epileptic seizure. This one moment easily upstages everything else in the film.
Hawke manages to acquit himself as well as can be expected, in the largely unsympathetic role. Especially in the early scenes, he captures the desperation of a man deliberately exposing himself to abominable horrors – hoping that he can make a buck without losing his soul (or at least his mind) in the process. Also noteworth is James Ransone as the helpful deputy, known only as “Deputy So-and-So” because he offers to be the guy whose name you always see on the acknowledgements page at the beginning of Oswalt’s books, the “Deputy So-and-So, without whom this book could not have been written.”
The rest of the cast are professional enough, and Dalton does a good job of looking disgruntled but legitimately so – not just a one-note antagonist. Unfortunately, much of the action the characters perform is hard to believe, and many of them drop out of the action for so long it is impossible to guild credible character arcs; Oswalt’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is particularly hampered by inconsistencies.
In the end, all SINISTER has to offer are a few standard-issue scare techniques: shadowy figures in darkness; a freeze-frame image of Bughuul that comes to life when Oswalt is not looking, etc. But when director Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) tries to pull out all the stops, he plays a bum note: the souls of the children pursuing Oswalt (during his umpteenth trip down the dark corridors) just are not terribly terrifying, and their closeups only emphasis the lack of shivers. (They all look like kids dressed up for Halloween, and you want to say, “Oh, how cute! Now go have fun trick-or-treating.”)
As if sensing the dearth of horror, SINISTER offers one final “shock” shot of Bughuul’s face lunging into frame before the closing credits. It’s almost funny: in its desperate attempt to deliver a good scare before sending the audience home, the scene virtually defines the cliche: “too little, too late.”
SINISTER (2012). Produced by Jason Blum. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Rile, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, and Nicholas King as Bughuul.