Movie Review: ‘Sinister’ Lives up to its Name

Sarah Jakubowski October 16, 2012 0
Movie Review: ‘Sinister’ Lives up to its Name
  • Fear Factor
  • Originality
  • Character Development
  • Soundtrack
Director: Scott Derrickson
Producer: Jason Blum
Writers: C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson
Actors: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario
Music: Christopher Young
Cinematography: Chris Norr

Unfortunately my boyfriend and movie buddy was out of town, so I had to see this one alone. I figured what of it, I’m a grown-up and I can surely handle a couple of scares.  Little did I know, Sinister brought more than just a couple of scares.  It’s packed with all sorts of spooky surprises that made me rethink my choice of watching it by myself.  Luckily, it also has its fair share of originality and good plot which elevates it to more than just a fright-fest.  It does stumble now and then, but overall is worth the ticket price.  Here’s the rundown:


Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-life crime writer who believes in total immersion in his work. He even takes it to the extent where he moves to the same town the crimes he’s writing about have happened.  For his most recent novel, he takes it a step further and moves into the very same house that was the site of a grisly murder.

Well, not quite true.  As he reassures his wife (Juliet Rylance) when she asks, “No, it’s not like this was the site of the murder.  It happened in the back yard.”  Comforting.

In the house’s attic, he finds a lone box labeled “home movies,” with reels that had titles like “Pool Party” and “BBQ.” Starting out as amateur films of cheerful family moments, they all ended with the household murdered in a different way. The innocent-sounding titles are actually sick premonitions to the method of murder.  By watching and re-watching Ellison starts to pick up recurring details, such as a creepy figure always standing in the background.  The more he watches and thinks about the videos, the more unsettling things happen around his house.  When he sends stills of the figure to an expert he learns that the character lurking in the background is a Bagul, a Pagan deity that eats the spirits of children.  Even scarier, a Bagul actually lives in the actual images of himself — the same images Ellison’s been fixating on.  Ellison, who has two children himself (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario), decides to do the smart thing and move before anything bad happens.  Wait, no, this is a horror movie which means he sticks around researching further.

The Good

Fear Factor

When I left the theater I overheard a woman say, “That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”  While I don’t quite agree with her (for me, the scariest thing I’ve ever seen would be The Shining.  Five words:  Jack Nicholson with an ax , the movie did stick with me in a way I didn’t expect.  I think there’s something inherently creepy about children antagonists in horror movies and whenever I started to drift off to sleep that night I kept thinking of, well, this:

There are lots and lots of creepy kids in this movie. Be warned.


Really, there are only a handful of scary movie plots out there and it’s hard to expand on them.  There’s the possession theme, there’s the ancient monster theme, there’s the insanity-induced massacre theme and, well, that’s about it.  Sinister goes off the ancient monster theme, with its Bagul character.  What I think is pretty original is the whole “lives in the images themselves” thing.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, and that’s coming from someone who absolutely adores scary movies.  It definitely adds to the fright factor.  I mean it is one thing to move into a haunted house, but it’s another thing entirely to think that just looking at a picture of something makes your house haunted.

The Family

Most scary movies feature families that seem to come from the same mold.  There’s the parents who are usually divorced or having trouble in the marriage.  There are the kids, usually two.  Normally one kid’s really sweet and cute and the other’s a surly teenager.  It’s the father’s job to be main investigator of all the creepy things, while the wife is oblivious, disbelieving, or unsupportive. Seriously, there are enough similarities from film to film to be able to make a drinking game out of it.

And Sinister does share some of these traits, but they don’t feel like a two-dimensional stock sort of family.  They’re actually really interesting and more or less happy with each other.  They have normal everyday family problems — the girl doesn’t like that she moved, the boy has awful nightmares.  There are awesome quirks that make them more believable — the daughter’s allowed to paint on the walls in her room, the boy has long hair instead of the usual bowl cut.  It’s a refreshing change.

The Bad

The Music

Instead of elevating the creepy level and working with the scary stuff happening, the background music distracted from it. Which is a shame because music can be one of those things that make or break a film.  Most out of place was the music playing over the home videos.  I would’ve understood something happy and innocent as the home movies ended in murder, or something scary predicting the events.  Or if it was silence, save for the rhythmic clunk of the Super-8 player.  These are all things that would’ve worked.  What didn’t was what the film used, which was a sort of generic orchestra blend that you might hear played in grocery stores.

Lack of Scene Variety

You know how in “the good” I talked about how awesome the family was?  Well, unfortunately we hardly see much of them.  Or anything else, for that matter.  The majority of the movie is spent in Ellison’s dim-lit office while he watches and re-watches the films.  Even when he consults the expert on what the symbols in the movies mean we don’t get a new setting, it is done via video-chat. I would’ve liked a change of scenery where it shows him interacting with his wife and kids.  Supposedly the whole family is subjected to animosity from the locals who think Oswalt researching the murder so soon after it happened is insensitive, but we never see any outsider’s reaction. There were plenty of opportunities to show it too. For instance, at school his son drew a picture of the crime scene on the chalkboard and got in trouble for it.  It would’ve been nice if the audience actually saw that scene instead of just being told about it.

Religious Sensitivity Fail

Pictured: Not a Pagan deity

There are a lot of go-to sources movie makers look to when coming up with monsters, most of them involving Latin chanting.  But while it’s unlikely that someone will get worked up over misconstruing a dead language, Paganism actually is a religion that many people practice – and it doesn’t involve evil spirits.  There is no Bagul in Paganism, or anywhere else.  It’s an entity entirely fabricated by the filmmakers.  And while I’m all for making up scary monsters, it crosses a line when you say that a fake monster belongs to a real religion.  Couldn’t they have left out the origin of a Bagul entirely and just said he was a demon?  Or made up a cult that worshiped him?  I can think up a dozen different solutions that don’t involve negative stereotyping.

Overall Score:  3 out of 5 stars

This is definitely worth checking out if you want to get into the Halloween mood.  However, don’t expect a perfect movie.  You might be disconcerted by a jarring soundtrack and get sick of spending scene after scene in Ellison’s office.  But if you want to have trouble sleeping at night, this is the movie to see.