Review: “Sinister” starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance

Ethan Hawke in SinisterHalloween offers few forms of entertainment for the middle aged. If one has friends who are throwing a party in the vicinity, then it’s probably best to put on a smudge of face paint, don a white smock with an anonymous red stain, and go. The evening can then be spent in good company while swilling bad Chardonnay as “The Monster Mash” plays in the background. If there aren’t any such festivities on offer, one can stay at home and await the inevitable knocks on the door followed by plaintive pleas for free candy from diminutive ghosts and skeletons. Alternatively, one can go out and see a scary film. Despite the intermittent rain which prevailed over Yorkshire last night, the last option proved to be the most attractive.

Bradford was buzzing: the wet pavements and roads reflected the bright lights of Eid, the Leisure Exchange complex was full of people. Nandos was bursting with families consuming spicy chicken and chips. Inside the cinema, the familiar scents of sweet and salted popcorn lingered in the air and a multitude of televisions blared trailers for upcoming movies. However, the queues were longer than usual: it seemed a lot of people had the same idea. As for the films themselves, there were three “horror” options. First, there was “Paranormal Activity 4”. Given that many film series that have reached a fourth instalment are less than stellar, this didn’t seem like a good idea. Next, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” had just been re-released with extra footage added: it was sold out. This left “Sinister”, starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance.

At first glance, this didn’t seem particularly promising: there have been a number of recent horror film flops, such as the lamentable “The Devil Inside”, which were solely destined to land on supermarkets’ discount DVD racks. Some subtle aspects of the poor films’ marketing had made their way into “Sinister”‘s promotional materials. Nevertheless, Ethan Hawke has a tendency to bring depth and sincerity to any role he plays; it was worth a try. The rain outside continued in irregular torrents, Halloween’s few remaining hours were ebbing away, there was little to lose.

From the start, “Sinister” is an interesting film. After a bizarre, grainy preface which shows four people with burlap sacks over their heads slowly being hanged, we are introduced to a “real crime” writer, Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) as he moves into a Pennsylvania home with his wife, young son and daughter. He’s changed location because the new house was the scene of a strange and brutal murder: a mother, father and two children were hanged from a tree in the back yard, as was shown in the prelude. Furthermore, we’re told, a third child went missing. Oswalt hopes that by investigating and writing about this tragedy he will revive his flagging career; it’s later revealed that he was last on the New York Times best seller list over ten years ago. From the start, Hawke adds interiority to a character whose biography is almost a cinematic cliché: he has the demeanour of a man who lost his touch and is desperate to regain it. Indeed, he is so driven that he blinds himself to the possibility of danger; for example, at first he does not tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) about the home’s dire history, who would have objected to living there. His son (Michael Hall D’Addario) suffers from night terrors; the intensification of these as the film progresses does not spur him to change. His daughter (Clare Foley) paints images of the deceased and missing and yet he is not immediately swayed.

The house itself adds to the rather gloomy atmosphere: it is an unprepossessing brick bungalow, notable for dark, lengthy halls filled with shadows. In the dank and dusty attic, Oswalt finds a box of home movies in Super 8 format; they are accompanied by an aged projector. Strangely, as he discovers, this box was not found in the initial police investigation of the house just after the family was killed.

The films are disturbing records of not just the murder which occurred in the house he’s moved into, but also similar crimes spanning multiple towns and decades. The audience is only spared the most absolutely gruesome details; however this technique, particularly in relation to a grisly incident involving a lawn mower, made the experience even more frightening.

Mr. Boogie“Sinister” could have gone a number of different routes; the explanation provided for the murders is supernatural in nature. We are introduced to a malevolent entity later referred to as “Bughuul”, or as he’s called by some of the children involved, “Mr. Boogie”. This supernatural route borrows heavily from some horror classics: the use of visual media as a means of conveying horror is reminiscent of both the “Blair Witch Project” and the “Ring” series. The entity’s preoccupation with children echoes “Pennywise the Clown” in Stephen King’s “It”. The idea of the young as manipulated instruments of evil echoes “The Children of the Corn”. As the producer of “Sinister” was also responsible for “Paranormal Activity”, there is an unsurprising, though effective use of sudden appearances of people and things, as well as useful doses of bumps in the night. People in the audience gasped and cried out in terror at just the right moments; I was among them. However, there is nothing new here; it is just a well crafted remix.

The story could have just as easily headed down a “true crime” route; it would have been plausible that the films were left by a psychopathic serial killer who wanted to inform Oswalt of his terrible legacy. Such a maniac would have correctly assessed Oswalt as someone who would be an ideal individual to taunt the police about their failure to catch him; an incident at the start of the film in which a policeman (Fred Thompson) upbraids Oswalt for his criticism of law enforcement sets up this possibility. Given the potential of this plot, it is almost a pity that a second “Sinister” was not made. I found myself particularly wishing for this alternative when somewhat dated motifs made an appearance, such as images in still pictures moving of their own accord.

Nevertheless, the supernatural version was perfect for a dark and rainy Halloween night, ideal for obtaining the adrenalin rush that comes from raw terror; after the film ended, I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster ride, roughed up and shaken in the way a good horror film should achieve. As I emerged back into the night and felt the falling rain and cool breezes, I thought that the film and the evening were well suited to each other: it’s unlikely that it will be nearly as scary to those who eventually pick it up on DVD at a supermarket and watch it in the full light of day. It needs both the essential darkness of the cinema and Halloween. It also is enhanced by a crowd: the fact that most of the audience was obviously frightened made it all the more terrifying. Without these factors, it is difficult to suggest that “Sinister” is a great film; nevertheless, when the end of October again beckons and the shadows prevail once more, it would be entirely apropos if some of the parties which the middle aged attend feature a widescreen television, the lights switched off and this film in the player.

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