“Washed-up true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt finds a box of Super-8 home movies that suggest the murder he is currently researching is the work of a serial killer whose work dates back to the 1960s.” — IMDb
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime writer chasing after the fame and recognition he experienced after his years-ago hit, Kentucky Blood. His wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and two kids, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley), have been as patient as can be thus far, despite him burying himself in his work and becoming more alcoholic over the years. In his quest to produce something groundbreaking, he moves them in to an actual crime scene: the house where a family of five was brutalized (four of them murdered by hanging from a tree outside, and the youngest child missing). He quickly realizes there’s even more to the investigation than he initially thought, and soon he’s too deep in it to escape unscathed.
I have some real admiration for this movie, and a few complaints as well. Let’s start with the good.
Firstly, there’s no doubt this movie has great production value and some fantastic acting. I was actually surprised, since I really can’t think of anything else I’ve seen Ethan Hawke in (after some IMDBing there’s really nothing that jumped out at me besides Assault on Precinct 13), but he’s really great, as are Rylance and the two kids for that matter. This was apparently Hawke’s first foray into horror, something he said he’d never do but he fell in love with Scott Derrickson’s script.
The plot is not only engaging but they did a great job with character development. One of the biggest oversights I see in horror movies is a lack of really letting us get to know the characters involved. I appreciate the occasional cheap thrill and gratuitous gore as much as the next person, but I really love seeing a horror movie that seems to effortlessly get me involved in the characters’ lives and personalities. This movie was just as much about Oswalt’s simultaneous obsession with his work and overwhelming desire to prove to himself that he can reach a level of fame again as it was about the increasingly supernatural story unfolding in front of his eyes. There’s a few very genuine scenes of discord between him and his wife where you feel like you can really relate to both of them equally — her desire to have a present husband and father to her children, and his desire to be free to pursue his passion.
There’s some truly chilling scenes throughout the movie. Oswalt’s sleepwalking son popping backwards out of the cardboard box in the hallway… yeah, pretty damn freaky. The “home movies” of the murders that he finds in the attic… disturbing enough that you really can’t look away, made especially creepy by the old timey music that plays during each one. Each killing is sort of themed in this kind of bloody, gory twist on the idyllic happy family stereotype — the video of the family duct taped to pool chairs and drowned is called “pool party”, the one of the family burned to death in their own car is “BBQ”. You get the idea. Twisted.
The deputy who wants to be Oswalt’s man on the inside — played by James Ransone — is just so awesome. It’s a shame he has such a relatively minor character, because he has this understated humor and just natural acting ability that I loved immediately.
And now the bad. It’s hard to notice that almost every damn thing that Oswalt does in this movie is in the dark. It’s clearly done for creeptastic effect but it winds up being a little repetitive and not entirely believable considering he’s got nothing else going on during the day, so why is everything in the pitch freaking black?
The bad guy in the movie, who we eventually find out is referred to as “Bughuul” or “Mr. Boogie” to the kids he abducts, is somewhat creepy when spotted in the shadows of the home movies… but upon closer inspection he seems like he might fit in better in some kind of Slipknot-esque metal band. The concept of his character — that he’s a pagan deity from Babylonian times that needs to feed on the souls of human children to survive and can travel between his realm and ours through images of himself and symbols — is minorly interesting, but the logistics of all of it are just frustrating to me. I’d honestly be more into this movie if the killer was simply a serial killing human… he doesn’t need a supernatural aspect, it was all creepy enough on its own.
The scene where Oswalt is investigating around the house because the Super 8 projector started playing on its own for the millionth time and the kids are all sneaking around behind him… cheesy as hell. Same with the kids sitting around watching the video up in the attic. I am just convinced that it’s damn near impossible for me to think that kids — whether they’re dead or alive, murderous or innocent — are scary. His daughter, Ashley, does a pretty decent job at being a creepy little murderer… but still, it just doesn’t do much for me. The ending was only a little bit creepy but again, I could really do without the supernatural aspect, and seeing Mr. Boogie more up close kind of shook away the creepiness that came from him being so shrouded in mystery.
Ultimately, I think it did great for a “Hollywood horror”. Strong acting and cinematography saved what wound up being an unnecessarily convoluted plot and a kinda goofy villain. I’ll check out the sequel, Sinister 2 (which looks like it has James Ransone in a more central role, yesss!), and report back!
Rating: 5/10 | Director: Scott Derrickson | Writer: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill | Music: Christopher Young | Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Nicholas King