horror movies

A Sinister Breakdown for the Horror Purists

SINISTER Photo: Phil Caruso/Summit Entertainment

It’s October and that means it’s horror-movie time. Not that the other eleven months of the year aren’t also horror-movie time, but Hollywood knows from scheduling around holidays, and Halloween is fast approaching. Every weekend this month sees a major horror release, last weekend’s being the Ethan Hawke–starring Sinister. (The week prior, we looked at V/H/S. Up next, Paranormal Activity 4.) Vulture’s Horror Enthusiast will be watching each film and breaking down how it does or does not meet the genre’s well-known specifications. Here’s our checklist of how Sinister satisfies your horror-film needs. (Spoilers follow.)

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, the director and co-writer of 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the just-announced director of an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Breathing Method, a novella from the same collection that spawned Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil; stars a gaunt-looking Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt (what a name!), a true-crime writer who moves his wife and kids into a house in which an entire family was recently murdered.

Horror Subgenre
Found footage (Paranormal Activity, etc.), snuff-film thriller (the nasty Joel Schumacher/Nicolas Cage movie 8MM), haunted house (too many to list), writer stuck in haunted house (Shining, 1408, other Stephen King adaptations), serial-killer mystery.

Welcome Clichés
Bad guy with a scary face; multiple excursions in a darkened house at night; someone enters an attic even though they shouldn’t; upon closer inspection, someone sees something in a photo that wasn’t apparent at first; a character researches bad things that have happened in the past.

Unwelcome Clichés
A character explores a house at night without turning on the lights; a door slams unexpectedly (but totally expectedly); inexplicable fog in a backyard; a life-saving phone call is not answered; an embarrassingly cheap scare at film’s end; terrible “dead person” makeup.

Is an expert in the occult consulted?
Most definitely. Ellison Skypes several times with Professor Jonas, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Despite being just a small-time college professor, he happens to be incredibly knowledgeable about the obscure pagan god Bughuul. He makes the name Bughuul sound reasonable despite it being completely ridiculous. (Though the bad guy in The Exorcist was Pazuzu, so … )

Foreboding lines of dialogue
Ellison to wife: “I’ve got a really good feeling about this.”
Ellison to wife: “It’s not going to go sour.”
Ellison to wife: “Every minute that we’re here, we’re closer to that happy ending we dreamed of.”

Locations Where Bad Things Happen
A very dark house.
An even bigger dark house.

Ways in Which People Die Horribly
An entire family is lynched, hung from a tree in their backyard.
An entire family is drowned in their swimming pool.
An entire family is burned alive in their car.
An entire family is murdered in their beds.
An entire family is run over by a lawn mower.

Place on Horror Quality Continuum
Our film critic, David Edelstein, was quite sour in his review of this film, writing that it made him, a lifelong horror-film fan, abhor the genre. And to be sure, there is a nastiness in every part of Sinister — the protagonist is an asshole nearly impossible to sympathize with (despite the script’s game attempts to make us do so) and at a certain point, the film’s need to play the Super 8 snuff films over and over again becomes numbing. Still, those home movies allow it to fit nicely into the seemingly endless onslaught of frightful found-footage films. It’s a solid (if ultimately overheated) Halloween month 2012 entry. Claustrophobic and dark, it might ultimately play better on home screens.

A Sinister Breakdown for the Horror Purists