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Edelstein on Sinister: Can a Single Movie Snuff Out One’s Love of Horror Films?

Sinister did something I thought would be impossible: It made this lifelong horror freak abhor horror movies. When a genre comes to consist principally of movies like this — an hour and a half of ugly shots of unlikable people doing stupid things while you sit in a state of dread, waiting and waiting for the pop-up boogie man to kill them and their children in some disgusting way and there’s nothing to do but squirm and look at your watch and wish you were somewhere, anywhere else, even at the Kevin James comedy in the next theater — then it’s time to find some other way of getting your jollies. Missing is what once mattered most in tales of madness and the supernatural: the metaphor for human experience (the dark side, obviously) that can’t be captured through mere photographic realism.

Since The Blair Witch Project (which worked), ultrarealism has become a horror fetish, and Sinister opens with a Super 8 snuff (home) movie: a slow-motion shot of an entire family, their faces hooded, being hung in their backyard, their legs kicking wildly in their death throes. Then another family moves into the same house — on purpose! The protagonist, who has the twirpy name Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), is a once-famous, now-fading true-crime writer living beyond his means and desperate for another big book after a decade of embarrassing flops. He has come to solve the mystery of the four murders and the disappearance of the young daughter. And he has brought his kids!

Watching horror pictures, we allow ourselves to accept the existence of ghosts, zombies, and demons of all stripes. But the idea of a man relocating his family to a vacant home that was recently the scene of carnage while keeping all the pertinent information from his wife (who, days after moving in, is still in the dark) is too absurd to abide. The plot point doesn’t track, and it’s the linchpin of the couple’s disintegrating relationship. The illogic might not matter if there were more going on, but the director, Scott Derrickson (who wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill), is looking to create atmosphere, and the film’s creepy-crawly pace gives you plenty of time to talk back to the screen. (“Moron … Dumbass ...”)

Oswalt finds a box in the attic containing snuff Super 8 movies of four other family slaughters and watches them over a period of days (as if he has something else to do in the intervening hours), murmuring to himself instead of calling the police and assuring his wife (Juliet Rylance) that he’s onto something big, that this one’s going to be his In Cold Blood. For some mysterious reason, though, he doesn’t interview anyone. It’s a good thing this is Hawke, who can hold your interest by virtue of being a movie star and, a dozen years ago, a pretty fair Hamlet. (I have enough faith in him to hold a pair of tickets to his Ivanov this fall.) But I’m not sure Brando in his prime could have made Ellison Oswalt seem like more than a clueless dimwit.

Derrickson and Cargill come up with all kinds of tricks to delay the climax we see loping toward us like the ghoul in the opening of Night of the Living Dead: a child with night terrors, a deputy (James Ransone) who wants to get himself into the acknowledgements of Oswalt’s next book; a consultation with a professor who’s an “occult expert” (Vincent D’Onofrio!) about mysterious symbols at the crime scenes. There are a few good frissons, most of them via those Super 8 home movies and cribbed from the bloodcurdling prologue of Michael Mann’s Manhunter — for better or worse, perhaps the seminal thriller of the last quarter-century. As usual, what you don’t see is scarier than what you do — but when the demons finally show up in obvious greasepaint and eye makeup in shots held way too long, most of the air goes out of the movie.

One could argue that there is a metaphor under all these creaky plot turns — about ambition splitting parents off from their children, maybe. But that would be a stretch. Sinister is, like most of its ilk, nothing more than a bad-vibe machine — and even a good bad-vibe machine is a colossal bummer.