Horror is one of those genres where you honestly don’t have to try too, too hard to succeed. Yes, it’s of course preferable that any film would stand out as a unique property that breaks all expectations of its context & genre, but it’s never that big of a deal when a horror film shrugs off that kind of ambition. With its own set-in-stone tropes & built-in audience, horror allows a lot of breathing room for films to just sort of coast on the long line of work that came before them. Innovation isn’t entirely necessary for each individual horror picture as long as they deliver a few basic elements: suspense, some good scares, maybe a memorably creepy creature or two, etc. As long as they play by the rules, all a passably decent horror film really needs to do is not drop the ball. In a lot of ways, Sinister is such a film.
There’s nothing really too special about Sinister. Ethan Hawke plays a “true crime” journalist who moves into the house of a slaughtered family in order to research his new book, some kind of In Cold Blood derivative. Of course, the house is haunted. Of course, the project drives him mad. Of course, there’s a Boogieman-type demon helming the entire horrid affair. Well, the film actually takes that last part quite literally. Known to historians as Bughuul & to possessed, homicidal little demon children as “Mr. Boogie”, The Boogieman is a real character in the film, orchestrating all of the haunted goings on from the protective distance of some super 8 films mysteriously discovered in Hawke’s attic. It’s curious that, since he exists largely in the imaginations & drawings of little children, Mr. Boogie isn’t represented here as I would’ve drawn him in my youth (a man-sized booger in a trenchcoat) but instead appears as some sort of Industrial Goth enthusiast in corpse paint. No matter. Despite Bughuul’s prominence in Sinister‘s mythology, he’s entirely nonverbal and doesn’t do much besides makes some guest cameos in the haunted super 8 films to look all goth-like & mean. The children under his spell do most of the heavy lifting & are much more effective at producing some great onscreen scares.
The haunted super 8 films that drive Ethan Hawke’s true crime journalist mad depict The Boogie Man’s child army calmly, methodically executing their respective families for the benefit of home video in a variety of unsavory ways: drownings, fires, lawn mowers, etc. These films are where Sinister excels most as a unique property, almost functioning as an old-fashioned horror anthology. There’s a lot of visual care that goes into depicting the projection equipment that screens the films and in other minute details (such as throats being slit in the reflection of Hawke’s glasses as we’re watching him watch a projection) that’s otherwise missing from the film’s more run-of-the-mill haunted house & creepy children formula. During these screenings the film’s sound design also takes on a special importance (including a kickass soundtrack) , reaching for some deeply unnerving vibes that can’t be accomplished simply through gore makeup & jump scares. Sinister may take a while to build up its own mythology & its central Nine Inch Nails Superfan villain may be a little underwhelming, but its haunted films concept is satisfying enough to make for a decent horror picture once the ball is finally rolling. Besides, creepy, murderous children are always an easy sell for fans of the genre, which allows the film to more or less coast.