Review: Sinister (2012)

So I watched Sinister on Netflix the other night, and I’ve had some thoughts gestating about it for a few days now. It’s maybe the best-mixed bag of a horror film I’ve ever seen, with some genuinely high highs and some hilariously low lows. It’s filled with cliches but scrounging up just enough originality to stay afloat. The film manages to build some intriguing characters and down-to-earth family drama and then does nothing with them. I suppose the only thing I can unequivocally say about the film is that there’s at least half of a quality movie in there — and that’s better than a lot of films manage.

Let’s just take a moment to focus on the good:

Good thing number one is an unsurprisingly nuanced performance from Ethan Hawke. I say ‘unsurprising’ because come on, who better to bring the essential, grounding emotional heft a good horror film needs to differentiate itself from schlocky torture-porn? Honestly, without him giving a believable performance as a suburban dad going through a midlife crisis, this film would have nothing going for it. So thanks for that, Mr. Hawke.

Good thing number two is (and this is at the risk of sounding pretty pretentious) the film’s willingness to seriously engage with a meta-narrative. It’s overdone to hell and back, but films about films are never going to stop being a thing, so we may as well try to separate the wheat from the chaff. At least in this case, I can give Sinister the highest praise I have to offer: it is WHEAT.

But seriously, I love a film that throws the characters in the story into the same seat you are in at that very moment. In this case, both you and Ethan Hawke’s character are experiencing the exact same emotional tug-of-war: the inability to look away from something horrible. When he finds a box of VHS snuff films in the attic, he doesn’t yet know what he’s stumbled upon. It’s only after learning how to operate a projector (which the film slows down to really show you, in some detail, the process used to splice film in the old days) that he bears witness to the filmed murders of numerous families. Quite an auspicious discovery for a has-been true crime author, no? Where others would go to the police, he sees a chance to make some money and reclaim his faded fame. This could be a whole other post in itself: Ethan Hawke’s character’s obsession with the spotlight. The only other films he watches during the movie are old tapes of himself on talk shows. This longing to occupy the frame is finally satisfied at the end of the film, although probably not in the way he envisioned.

Sinister joins the long tradition movies about people watching movies

Good thing number three: the film actually spends time on characters. What a concept, right? And look, you can spend as much time on characters as you want, but if they’re two-dimensional characters in poorly scripted scenes, then who cares, right? That’s not how Sinister does it at all. The petty domestic arguments, the unsettling quirks of the kids (which rate only slightly above the “creepy child” cliche we all know and are bored of, but are still mildly engaging), the scenes of Ethan Hawke watching his old interviews, reliving his brief time in the spotlight — this is all pretty compelling stuff and well executed in my opinion.

So if we focus on those three highlights, Sinister sounds like a pretty sweet ride, right? Well, unfortunately, I’ve taken most of this post to describe what accounts for maybe 30 minutes of the movie. The rest is your run of the mill cheap thrills focusing on the “creepy child” cliche mentioned above and a monster who’s only real moment in the spotlight is a cheap attempt at a jump-scare at the end of the film. Pretty lame stuff. And look, I’m not one to tear into child actors’ performances, but this film really did not benefit from the scares it tried to generate using a bunch of kids. Unless you find the sight of a child horrifying in and of itself (as some do), most of the scares Sinister goes for won’t land. Of course, once in a blue moon, there are actually great horror performances by young kids, but regrettably, none in this film managed much above laughable.

So really, I think there’s enough in this film for one or two academics to go nuts on the meta-commentary, plug some scholarly clickbait like “camera as observer” or whatever, and then move on. I think the snuff film aspect of Sinister really stood out as a strong example of found footage horror’s original intent, which it seems to have woefully lost sight of through the years.

If I were to sum it up in one sentence: this movie is way too dumb for how smart it is, but maybe that’s OK.

This movie is for you if:
You want to see some snuff stuff
You’re scraping the bottom of the Ethan Hawke acting barrel
You find films with meta-commentary engagingly self-critical

This Movie isn’t for you if:
You want an interesting horror villain
Violence against children is too much for you
You find films with meta-commentary self-indulgent and obnoxious (fair enough)

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