Halloween is right around the corner, so how about an Ethan Hawke horror movie?
In Scott Derrickson’s SINISTER, which is being billed as “from the producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS,” Hawke plays one of my favorite film character archetypes: the writer whose first book was a smash, but a decade or so later is struggling with the follow-up.
Here, Hawke’s genre is true crime, and he’s just moved with his wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) into a house where a family of four was found hanged from a tree in the backyard. Hawke’s plan is to re-ignite his fame by writing a book about the previous occupants’ murders, and solve the mystery of a missing fifth family member, a young girl named Stephanie.
“Sinister” opens with grainy Super 8 footage of the hanging, and Hawke finds that very film in a box of home movies in the attic, in a canister labeled “family hanging out.” Late at night, drinking whiskey, in his office covered with photos, maps, and newspaper clippings, Hawke watches the movies (other reels contain footage of the killings of other families) over and over looking for clues. His writing process mainly consists of jotting down questions on Post-it notes like “Where is Stephanie?” and “Who took the film?”
Strange, possibly supernatural, things start happening, some which are explained - the 12 year old D’Addario has night terrors and will scream for no reason, a big menacing neighborhood dog in the yard; some which are undoubtedly from a dark realm - ghosts of kids appearing here and there, images of an evil Pagan deity lurking in both Super 8 frames and around Hawke’s house.
Christopher Young’s none-too-subtle score tells us well ahead of time when the next scare is scheduled. With its constant swelling up to each attempted in-your-face jolt, it calls attention to some of the most forced instances of creepiness I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.
One ridiculous sequence has Hawke, wielding a baseball bat while scoping out his dark house, because his projector keeps coming on showing the same film of the family being hanged. Man, I got so sick of seeing that sick footage. Anyway, Hawke’s worried eyes work over time as he searches the shadows, but he misses the apparitions of dead kids that keep appearing around him, but disappear the second he turns around - you know, like in a cartoon.
A couple more clichés are present in the two local cops that show up to Hawke’s property. Fred Thompson (long-time character actor and former U.S. Senator) plays the gruff Sheriff, who’s not a fan of Hawke’s work, and James Ransone as the bumbling Deputy, who turns out to be smarter than expected. At least, there’s a welcome un-credited cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as a professor of the occult, or some such, even if he only appears on a computer screen.
Hawke does his best to carry this macabre mess, and pulls off a few great hysterical moments, but the vain douchey nature of the character he’s embodying doesn’t cut it as one we should care about. The movie itself isn’t visually interesting - it’s too dark and dreary aesthetically, and there’s not much imagination in shot set-ups.
Derrickson’s (best known for THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE I guess) film fails to frighten so much that when its’ supposed-to-be shocking ending arrives, it pathetically falls flat.
It may be slim pickings for quality horror movies this Halloween, what with a fourth PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and something called SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D coming out, but that doesn’t mean one should settle for the embarrassingly non-scary SINISTER.