Ellison Oswalt is a desperate man. He once topped the New York Times Bestseller list with his acclaimed true crime novel, Kentucky Blood. But that was a decade ago. Since then, his follow-up efforts have completely tanked, one of which hurt his credibility. Now a married man with two kids, he needs a big hit more than ever. Otherwise, it’s back to editing college textbooks.
So, on a hunch, he decides to move his family into a dirt cheap residence. Why? It’s the sight of an unsolved massacre. The trail has gone cold and he wants to know why.
That’s the intriguing premise of Sinister, a surprisingly effective thriller released just before Halloween last year. Ethan Hawke is very good as the singularly driven Ellison, a man so hungry for another shot at mainstream accolades he’s willing to put both himself and his devoted loved ones in an incredibly dangerous situation, one he does not fully comprehend.
On moving day, Ellison finds a box filled with Super 8 movies and a projector up in the attic of his new place. (The family is keeping their old one for the time being since they can’t sell it just yet.) After setting up his private work space on the ground floor, he turns out the lights and starts watching them one by one on a white sheet against a wall.
Each one has an innocuous-sounding title like “Pool Party ’86”, “Sleepy Time ’98” or “Barbeque ’79”, so screening them sounds like a complete waste of time. Sure enough, each one starts off with a different, ordinary family doing typically ordinary things. Not terribly inspiring to a hungry writer hoping for a return to glory.
But as Ellison lets each of these films roll on, something disturbing happens every time. These exact same families are also seen being murdered in a variety of ways. Drownings, arson, throat slashings. No matter the method of execution, the startled author is appalled by what he sees. (So are we. These are well-directed sequences thankfully light on gore.) No wonder he’s reaching for that whiskey bottle so early.
The backyard of his new residence is the only reason he’s now living here. In one of the Super 8 movies, we watch in horror as four family members are hanged on a large tree branch found in that exact same backyard. As is the case with all the other documented murders he witnesses, one child from each vanquished family is curiously missing from the footage. Law enforcement has long given up trying to locate them as well as any possible suspects.
Speaking of the cops, Ellison doesn’t exactly have a great relationship with them as demonstrated in one crucial scene early on. On moving day, he has a tense conversation with the local sheriff (the always sharp Fred Dalton Thompson) who lets him know in no uncertain terms that he won’t be helping him out with his new book. Even though he admits admiring Kentucky Blood, he’s still pretty upset about the pummelling his profession took in Cold Denver Morning and Ellison’s botched theory in Blood Diner that negatively affected a murder investigation. Perhaps it’s poetic justice that both titles flopped.
The sheriff is also offended that Ellison is in town living in this infamous house in the first place. He’s concerned the ambitious author will reopen old wounds with his independent investigation. But the determined author isn’t threatened by the strong criticism. In fact, after seeing those home movies, he knows he’s on to something big and he can’t let go of it.
When he was planning to tell his family about all of this is another story altogether. Meanwhile, his beautiful homemaker wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is losing her patience, his 7-year-old artistic daughter, Ashley (Clare Foley), is homesick and his long-haired 12-year-old son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), continues to suffer from extremely frightening night terrors. In one of the creepiest scenes in the movie, Ellison finds him contorted and screaming out of a cardboard box late one night.
What’s wrong with Trevor? The kids at school have always teased him about his father’s writing. The gory details of these real-life crime stories literally haunt him in his sleep. (Poor kid.) But that doesn’t deter Ellison in the slightest, especially since he’s made some unusual discoveries. (He can just taste another bestseller here and he’s salivating over the crossover possibilities.) In each Super 8 movie, he sees connections: an odd symbol and a mysterious thing, not exactly human, that may be responsible for all this carnage.
But as he gets closer and closer to the truth, weird things start to happen. He encounters a scorpion and a snake on separate trips to the attic. Where did they come from? He hears unexplained noises. Who’s making them? And how does that Super 8 projector keep playing that same backyard snuff film when he didn’t load it and his office door was locked at the time?
Clocking in at just under two hours, Sinister freaks you out right from the opening frame but never once rushes the narrative. Unlike most modern horror films, it actually cares about its characters and is willing to put in the time to develop them in an interesting, relatable way. (We really like Ellison’s wife and kids and feel for their situation.) As a result, we are far more invested in their gradually intensifying dilemma. Trust me, this movie earns its scares, the last one being the biggest (even if it is a bit of a cheat, when you really think about it).
The late Gene Siskel often complained that the movies could never make the process of writing entertaining. It’s a reasonable criticism considering how so much of it goes unseen. How exciting is it to see someone stare at a blank screen and then suddenly start typing when you don’t know what they’re thinking and why?
But because Ellison Oswalt is a true crime author, his process is more external. In a routine he is more than used to by now, he becomes an amateur detective as he posts maps, photos and printed stills from the Super 8 movies, along with other pertinent information, on a bulletin board in his office. He writes down questions, ponders others out loud to himself. He consults Google, follows leads hoping they get him closer to the complete picture. And he relies on a couple of helpful outsiders: the sheriff’s deputy (a well cast James Ransone in a sometimes funny performance), a superfan of Kentucky Blood who isn’t always so swift but dutifully and secretly retrieves and passes on important information to him without his boss’ knowledge, and Professor Jonas (the easily convincing Vincent D’Onofrio in an unbilled appearance), an expert on the occult the author consults via Skype.
I’m sure there are those who will watch this film and wonder why Ellison & his family take forever to get out of that house. It’s simple. This man misses the spotlight his first book gave him more than anything else. (Notice how many copies of his only hit he displays in his office and how in one scene he makes a point of staring at them to remind himself of where he used to be in the publishing food chain.) He’s absolutely thirsting for the kind of acclaim that eluded him during the release of his less loved follow-ups. (There are a couple of good scenes where he watches old TV interviews of himself during the Kentucky Blood publicity tour on VHS.) So consumed is Ellison, he is more than willing to risk the health and safety of his own family just so he can relive the best time of his career. Even when he does finally throw in the towel and they all move back to the old mansion, like a stubborn junkie at the end of his rope, he gets sucked right back in again hoping to catch the high from ten years before.
That stubborn, selfish insecurity is the reason he’s not so quick to walk away. (He has too much to lose professionally.) It’s why Ellison is so tolerant of increasingly intolerable things, why he fights with his wife about the true meaning of his legacy (he argues for his work, she argues for his family), why he’s willing to pay two mortgages simultaneously and why, despite finding it really difficult at times to watch those family snuff films, he soldiers on with his independent investigation of these depraved crimes. Maybe he really cares about finding justice for the victims but the resurrection of his career is absolutely paramount.
No other genre is as dependent on a strong musical score as the horror genre and it’s clear that without Christopher Young’s off-kilter, eccentric mood pieces, Sinister would not live up to its title. This is never more true then during the Super 8 scenes. Young’s unorthodox compositions ramp up the creep factor of the overall film quite nicely.
If you’re looking for a smart, subtle, well-acted and genuinely disturbing horror film, forget The Purge. Check out Sinister instead.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 13, 2013