This daft but effective chiller from the writer and director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose does nothing ground-breaking and has a truly preposterous set-up. But, thanks to some potent atmospherics, creepy sound design and a performance of intense, near-comical seriousness by Ethan Hawke (ably supported by, indeed encased in, a tremendously comfy-looking grey cardigan, more of which later), even the jaded horror veteran may find themselves a little spooked. I have to admit I did.
Hawke plays Ellison, a true-crime writer whose once-promising career has hit the skids. Chasing another bestseller, he decides the most effective way to rediscover his creativity is to buy a house that has played host to an unsolved series of ritual killings. As you do. He even moves his wife Tracy (Juliette Rylance) and their troubled son in for good measure. Hmm. Even Manhunter himself Will Graham had the sense to leave the family at the beach house, and he was a criminal mastermind – not a boho bozo who lost his mojo.
Discovering an box of old 8mm film cans in the house (naturally), he fires up the projector to unleash grisly, grainy footage of the slayings in horrible detail and the image of a hideous ’face’ briefly glimpsed in the background. His investigations (mostly mooching around in the cardigan, draining tumblers of whisky and endlessly re-watching the admittedly freaky footage) lead him to contact a portly, near-unrecognisable Vincent D’Onofrio as religious occultist Jonas. D’Onofrio’s entire performance takes place on Hawke’s laptop (is this what we should now call ‘skype-ing it in’?) and as soon as big Vin starts gibbering about ‘pagan deities’ and ‘soul eaters’ we know things are not going to end well.
Shining comparisons cannot be avoided with Sinister – Hawke playing a writer (when will Hollywood screenwriters’ fascination with themselves ever wane I wonder?) with some major personality issues shacked up in a property that harbours dark secrets and malevolence. But Jack Torrence was the caretaker of a place whose history he found out just prior to moving in. Stephen actively puts himself and his family in danger – in order to write a best-seller!
Of course The Shining is a recognised masterpiece of modern horror and Sinister is basically a hokey mashup of Insidious, Paranormal Activity and 8mm (with some truly risible, potentially tongue-in-cheek dialogue). But it is extremely entertaining and as far as pulpy modern horror goes, knocks spots off the likes of this year’s The Possession (aka The MEHxorcist).
Anyway, back to that knitwear. Hawke never takes off the chunky, robust number he dons throughout (it even has on-trend elbow patches too). It seems to act as a protective second skin and I have to admit I became mesmerised by it. It’s certainly more durable than the flimsy, fraying narrative, which unravels almost as quickly as Ellison’s fractured psyche.
So omnipresent is this achromatic cloak that I began pondering if it had some sort of added significance? Maybe Hawke had it written into his contract, part of his ‘method’? Could it be a poignant item he retained from his painful split with Uma all those years ago (“take what you want, just leave me the fucking cardigan!”) and he was tapping into it somehow, channelling the pain into all those sequences where he sits alone, re-watching the home movies, chugging JD. Perhaps it was just cold on the set.
As a totemic piece of movie knitwear it has someway to go if it’s to match Mike Douglas’ care-in-the-community-sex-pest V-neck in Basic Instinct, but it’s at least as good as Tom Hardy’s more celebrated cardigan (‘the hardy cardie’ or ‘hardigan’) in this year’s Lawless.
Anyway, when Sinister finished, a few of us gathered outside to discuss the film’s scare value. I remember I was a bit sniffy about its machine-tooled, cheapjack horror tactics. But the film had the last laugh when I found myself back at my flat hours later. I fumbled in almost complete darkness for my keys and when inside, immediately turned every single light on in the house. I went to the bedroom and – suddenly feeling the chill – reached out to a bundle of clothes hanging on the door. The first item to hand – a quarter length cable-knit grey cardigan.
I slept in my clothes.