– Summary –
Director : Scott Derrickson
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario, Fred Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: True crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves his family into a house where another family has been murdered. Discovering a box of Super 8 film in the attic, Ellison watches them only to learn that they contain footage from a number of other unsolved crimes around the country.
What we think : Don’t watch this alone in the dark. An interesting initial premise goes off the rails a little towards the end; however, Sinister remains an effectively chilling – and occasionally terrifying – semi-found-footage film that brings the hairs on the back of your neck right up straight.
There’s no rewind button.
If there’s a single basic currency that Hollywood most astutely understands, is that people like to have the shit scared out of them. Be it a ride on a roller-coaster, a scary ghost train at an amusement park, or watching an episode of Real Housewives, the general public have a fascination with being scared witless by something over which they have no control. Hollywood’s tapped into that desire with an ever-increasing slate of releases one might loosely categorize as “horror” (or often, “thriller”), films designed to have you peeking out at the screen from behind your fingers in the hope that the shady shape in the background doesn’t manifest into a spooky, terrifying screen horror. Whether you’re more into blood and gore, or creepy, monster-driven thrills, or psychological terror, Hollywood serves up something for everyone, and although the quality of these films might tend more towards “average” than “good”, occasionally something drifts down the pipe that demands your attention. Sinister is one such film – it’s a film of inestimable psychological chills, as well as a distinct disdain for the gore so prevalent these days, and it is a film designed for true scary-movie fans of any type.
Failing true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is struggling to keep his family afloat, and needs another big hit book to pay the rent. He moves his family – wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) – to a house where a murder has recently been committed: a family was hung from a tree in the backyard. Ellison, fearing the backlash by his wife if he tells her the truth about the house, lies about its past, intending to uncover clues about the murder (it’s been unsolved for some time now) and write another best-selling book about the case. Ellison discovers a box of Super 8 film in the attic, and upon playing it through a small projector, is horrified to discover the footage contains a number of other similarly unsolved murders, involving families with young children. It seems a child from each murdered family is missing after the killings, although they’ve never been found. Ellison uses the resources of a local sheriff (James Ransone) and a nearby college professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) to try and decipher the ghastly images in the films. The further Ellison digs into the mystery he’s uncovered, things begin to happen around the house – Trevor has disturbing night terrors, Ashley begins to paint terrifying images of the murders, and the projector somehow turns itself on every night – until Ellison is confronted with the horrifying fact that he’s unleashed a force more terrifying than any human slayer.
The term “supernatural horror” often brings with it images of ghostly ghouls and pin-headed creations of a writer’s nightmares – the stuff of bad dreams and night terrors. While these kinds of horror films often miss the mark thanks largely to subjective reasoning by the audience, they can still remain a potent force in cinema if handled with the right sensibility; Sinister has that sensibility, thanks to director Scott Derrickson’s often oppressive visual style. Supernatural usually means a force against which the Hero of the film has no power, or limited power at best, and in most modern cases ends up being defeated with some 3rd party spell, curse or last-gasp ritual that lacks emotional weight or visual grace. Usually, it’s not the Hero who defeats the villain, but something the Hero throws up as a shield. While Sinister’s central villain is indeed supernatural, the concept is handled in a brutally potent way by Derrickson and writer C Robert Cargill (on whom we shall thrown blame for this film, since it was his nightmare vision which forms the basis for the film) and one gets the sense that the film skirts dangerously close to the feeling of “it could happen”.
The major positive to Sinister is two-fold: first, the slow-burn buildup towards the frightening denouement is interspersed with some genuinely frightening (and some not so frightening) crash-bang jump edits, as well as some eerie and creepy moments of outright terror (namely, Ellison’s son emerging upside down from a box on the front doorstep – a la the Spider Walk from The Exorcist) and it’s this pervasive sense of impending dread and doom that serves to give one’s heart a thorough kicking. Secondly, the films premise isn’t hard to understand; Sinister does stray into the occult and paganism here and there, but it’s never the primary focus of the story – rather, it’s simply the catalyst for it, as opposed to some religious boogeyman of yore by way of The Exorcist. Therefore, the writers have avoided the inevitable screams of the faithful to the point that the writers have taken too much liberty with a demon or entity from the relevant spiritual plane which has no significant claim to be drawn on.
The film’s visual style is – as I alluded to earlier – rather oppressive. Ellison’s night-time sojourns into the madness of the murder films, and the eventual creaking-ceiling spooky chase through his house, are really effectively mounted, although I will say that sometimes, they dragged on just a little too long for my liking. Dense shadow and darkness, coupled with the single light-source methodology Derrickson employs to amp up the out-of-the-shadows “jump” moments, bring a sense of melancholy terror to proceedings, like a blanket of dread which seeps into the very pores of this production. Considering how loud Ellison was being throughout the movie, too, how he never woke his sleeping family with his shenanigans, I’ll never understand. Sinister also flirts with genre tropes a little too much at times, often with the head-scratching demands on the viewer to suspend our disbelief that Ellison has never ever seen a scary movie before. Dude, is there no way to turn on the lights in your haunted house? Apparently not. And when scary shit starts to happen, he just shakes it off with whatever tenuous logic his brain seems to spit forth.
If there’s a single failing to Sinister, it’s that the central character, Ellison, is a thoroughly unlikable twat. He lies to his family, wants fame and prestige over safety and normality, and is content to overlook the subtle scary stuff happening around him just so he can write his book. The moment his wife finds out they’re living in a house where an entire family was murdered, she understandably goes off her trolley with anger. Fair enough – although Ellison’s too much of a selfish prat to acquiesce to her (quite reasonable) demands that he consider his family as well as himself. Arguments are made with a shrug of the shoulders and a huff of breath as a way of wriggling out of it all. Consider that the whole film hinges on Ellison’s selfish behavior, the end result is something more shocking than I had hoped. And it’s never resolved, either. Because Ellison’s a twat, and he has no consideration for anyone else, I really hoped his family would up and leave before the crap hit the fan – spoiler, they don’t – it’s the kind of frustrating element to a lot of these kinds of films that just annoys me. Sure, I understand the pressure he’s under, but as his wife points out, there’s no real reason other than pride for him to be doing what he’s doing, and that’s where he comes unstuck with his arguments. And I hate inflexible characters like this. I know, without it there would be no film, but for all this crap to happen and for a person not to look at themselves and go “I think I’m in trouble here”, just doesn’t make sense.
While the film does drift into genre genericism from time to time, the palpable sense of dread Derrickson engenders never lets up. The opening titles, with the family being hung from the tree in their backyard, sets up the flickering film-esque nature of the story (reminds me a lot of that Nic Cage thriller, 8mm) with perfect power – and the film never lets up from there. It’s a stylish, full-tilt journey into death and the supernatural, and although the ending sets up potential sequels (I hope not) and a dreadful downer of a closing, one can’t help but admire the way in which the film unfolds. Whether you like this kind of film, or not, is secondary to how well Derrickson has pulled off the story within the boundaries afforded him by the script. My personal opinion is that Sinister is an effective, often frightening horror film that delivers the scares, the chills and the stay-with-you-after-the-credits mental strumming a good film should be able to cause. It’s not for everyone, but for those who dare to take a step into Sinister’s world, it’s a trip worth taking.