REVIEW: ‘Sinister’ is dark, scary, warped tale of murder

HorrorSinister, starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance, is scary. There’s no other way to put it. The film, directed by Scott Derrickson, has a contrived plot, but somehow it’s able to take the necessary genre elements and employ them in the right way to craft an eerie, sometimes terrifying tale.

Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer who has had successful books in the past. He moves into towns and profiles heinous crimes. His latest book is on a multiple set of murders in a small American town. The locals, including the police, would prefer he moved on and left their hamlet alone. To make matters even more “sinister,” Ellison moves his family into the actual house where the murders took place.

Rylance plays Tracy, Ellison’s wife and the voice of reason in the marriage. She’s unaware of her new abode’s creepy history, but she supports her husband and his career.

Ellison eventually finds evidence of the crime, plus some other horrible facts. The new findings send him into a whirlwind of dark corridors and uncomfortable realities.

Hawke’s filmography is spotty. He couples modern classics (Boyhood, the Before films) with paint-by-number thrillers. Sinister, on its surface, seems like a throwaway genre flick; however, his performance anchors the film and drives the plot along. If Hawke weren’t so effective in the lead, the movie would not work as well as it does.

While watching the 110-minute feature, it never feels like Ellison and his story could ever happen, at least not in the way Derrickson and his co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, presents the narrative. It’s tough to get behind characters who have jobs so few people can identify with — and a true-crime novelist definitely fits this category. Ellison has this profession for no other reason than to catapult the plot into discovering the grisly details of the crime. Why else would this story be told?

So the contrived story is a given; however, kudos to the cast and creative team for elevating the movie to a much scarier level. There are scenes and images in Sinister that can make the innocent and unsuspecting jump out of their seats (that’s perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s scary).

As an exercise in genre convention, the movie excels better than most other cinematic fare. It knows how to play out the mystery and dread; it knows how to heighten the tension and hook the viewer into watching a little bit closer. One wants to know the ending; one wants to know the truth. However, as the team winds the story to its unexpected conclusion, it becomes clear that conventional answers will not be achieved. As audience members (and Ellison) dig deeper into this rabbit hole, the bizarre quotient goes off the charts, and there’s almost no returning to reality.

Sinister is not a fun horror movie because the subject matter is too terrifying. However, it does achieve its central purpose: It’s scary.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

  • Sinister
  • 2012
  • Directed by Scott Derrickson
  • Written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
  • Starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance
  • Running time: 110 minutes
  • Rated R for disturbing violent images and some terror
  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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