Though The Secret of Sinchanee ends up being less than the sum of its parts, the acting, atmosphere, and core themes still make it a decent thriller.
The Secret of Sinchanee was written and directed by Steven Grayhm, who also stars in a lead role. His character, Will Stark, is an industrial tow truck driver who survived a double homicide as a child in 1995. After the death of his father in the present day, he returns to the childhood home where that tragedy took place. But the paranormal entity involved in the traumatic event has also returned, with mysterious, sinister plans for him. At the same time, two police detectives, Carrie Donovan (Tamara Austin) and Drew Carter (Nate Boyer), are investigating the murders of a mother and daughter, which may have some connection to the same entity haunting Will.
The film is Steven Grayhm’s feature directorial debut, and already he shows that he knows what he’s doing behind the camera. He clearly understands how to hold the audience’s attention with the slow-burn approach he goes for, utilizing creeping camera pans accompanied by Logan Fulton’s dreary cinematography. The Secret of Sinchanee also frequently partakes in a favorite tactic of mine: letting threats just appear onscreen with no fanfare, quietly waiting to strike as a tracking shot gradually brings them into the frame. I didn’t approve of every directing choice, though. Some cheap moves pop up, like artificial jump-scares (such as a phone ringing very loudly after prolonged silence) or intriguing sequences that turn out to just be dreams. But these instances don’t overshadow how much is done right.
While a few line deliveries are a little stiff, Grayhm also knows how to direct his fellow actors. Tamara Austin’s character is just as big a focus as his – maybe to a fault – and a lot of the film’s drive comes from her performance as this frightened yet strong detective, particularly near the end when the stakes get high for her personally. Carter works opposite her really well. He’s a bit of a smarmy wise-cracker, but he takes his job seriously and he’s clearly good at it. He’s balanced out perfectly, and I rarely see that kind of character done so well in a modern film. Grayhm himself has a much more subdued performance, but the pain his character experiences is still very evident.
The beginning of The Secret of Sinchanee is very strong, probably my favorite part. It immediately shrouds the film in mystery regarding what monster is out there and what Will went through on that fateful 1995 evening. It feels very realistically grim, despite how little we’re shown or told. From there, however, the answers to said mystery aren’t as enticing as I had hoped. Surprisingly, Will isn’t that interesting a character as an adult. The investment in him is at its highest when he’s a child, but we see fairly little of how he’s coped with his traumatic past in the following years. In fact, I can’t know for sure, but I think the two detectives have more screen time than him, which may be partially why he’s relatively underdeveloped. The film still works, though, because those two are interesting. They have a strained relationship from a complicated history, but they still clearly respect one another as people and professionals, which is something else that I rarely see balanced so convincingly in film nowadays.
As the film’s opening text lets you know, the story here has ties to America’s unfortunate history of violence against Native Americans, including the diseases that European settlers brought over, which wiped out an overwhelming amount of the native people. The supernatural force at play is a product of that history, manifesting in similar terrible acts continuing over the generations. The Secret of Sinchanee, however, uses these themes more as a backdrop rather than truly delving into them. If you anticipate any engrossing, multi-layered commentary on the subject matter, you’ll probably be disappointed by how paper-thin it ends up being. It’s not done badly, it just doesn’t have much to it. The plot is functional, but that’s about it. And even then, there are a few contrived moments, like when Carrie and Drew see a man trying to murder someone with an axe. Instead of arresting him, they just leave him to go save who they believe is his next target. The ultimate resolution also involves a character we see very little of throughout the film, making the emotional payoff involving his connection with another character come across as hollow.
In the end, The Secret of Sinchanee is a sufficient, well-crafted thriller, and shows that first-time director Steven Grayhm has a lot of promise going forward. The performances, characterizations, and suspenseful filmmaking are admirable, even if the simplistic execution of the story causes the whole to be less than the sum of its parts. There are nuggets of greatness that don’t fully blossom, but they serve the film well regardless. Though The Secret of Sinchanee left little impact on me, I can still recommend it for those looking for a tense campfire tale experience, especially with the month of Halloween now starting up.
The Secret of Sinchanee will be available to watch on Digital HD and On Demand on October 8, 2021.