Horror film ‘Sinister’ not bad but less than scary

By Gary Clift

The word “sinister” means trending to the left or left-handed. As a kid whose orientation was changed by his first grade teacher, I can tell you that the Dutch are more often slandered by the English language than are the left-handed, but “left-handed” can mean clumsy, duplicitous, and convoluted.

Protestants used to call Catholics “lefties,” so that Shakey’s anchovy pizza was the “Left Handed Special,” apparently for eating on Fridays.

It is no wonder the old word for lefty should have taken on a dark cast. What is “sinister” is not good. To call something “sinister” is to give it a left-handed compliment. “Bar-sinister” became the last name of a cartoon villain.

In naming Scott Derrikson’s new horror movie “Sinister,” the producers have got it half right. The film is about something old and not good. “Not good” refers to the subject—the evil ancient god that “tricks them [specific children] from the physical world.”

But the treatment of the subject, the story and characters and settings and so on—those are actually pretty well-managed. There are two lines of horror movies, the less expensive ones and the more expensive ones. Sometimes a “Paranormal” is just what you need. Cheap horror movies can be amusing and they can be scary.

Sometimes. Sometimes they turn out to be “Blair Witch” fiascoes. And some of the horror movies that stay with us the longest are the ones someone has squandered time and money in making—”The Shining” is a good example. And, though “Sinister” exists at the Ethan Hawke level rather than at the Jack Nicholson level, it is more like these better-made films. All except when it reproduces a fictional TV interview conducted by Tavis Smiley. TV “news” footage always counts at least one cinematic demerit.

Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a writer who specializes in books about real-life crimes and serial killers. He moves his family (his wife is played by Mark Rylance’s step-daughter, Juliet) into the actual brick ranch-house where the last family of residents were all found hung from a tree limb in the backyard. One young daughter is still missing.

As Oswalt is shoving something into the attic, he finds a box of eight millimeter home-movies and a projector. When he runs a reel of them in his office, he finds that the family was sullen but in no other way out of the ordinary. But wait—who was holding the camera? And then he is astonished to see the (utterly implausible) hanging scene has been recorded on film.

Here “Sinister” shows its debt to earlier films. Oswalt studies the film and reproduces single images for pinning to his wall as if he were David Hemmings’s photographer character in Antonioni’s “Blow-up.” And then Oswalt relies on a goofy sheriff’s deputy who seems like David Arquette’s character in the “Scream” movies.

The deputy helps him identify largely pictorial references (drawn by a child in the lid of a shoe box) to other, similar family killings after which one child has been missing. After a couple of Skype chats with a local professor of mystic multiple murders (this may be a new college department), Oswalt knows that a run of families have been killed in related ways, and that each one lived first in a house vacated by the deaths of another series family.

The methods of death are different family to family, and are all scary. But the movie itself, despite good music (a horror film requirement), is never really very frightening. “Mr. Boogie’s” face isn’t going to give anybody nightmares.

Nevertheless, the movie does hang together pretty well, partly by referring frequently to electronic media. Perhaps it has been cut a little long—though “Sinister” has some ideas to dramatize. At two hours and fifteen minutes (with previews), it is half an hour longer than the horror film optimum. And, then, the film has been hurt by its previews, which give away the whole first half hour, making watching that hunk of film kind of a drag.

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