This review was originally posted during our Fantastic Fest 2012 coverage last month.
There are few horror movies that come out anymore where the audience actually cares about or doesn’t necessarily want bad things to happen to the main characters. Often in the horror genre, characters are disposable or simply killed off one by one for the enjoyment of the audience. This even goes beyond the slasher formula. A great example of a film where you have a protagonist that is developed and structured in a fashion where the viewer sympathizes and generally cares about their well being would be Rosemary’s Baby. And like that masterpiece by Roman Polanski, writer C. Robert Cargill and writer/director Scott Derrickson have constructed a story that takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster with the protagonist while slowly building a sense of dread that culminates in an unsettling place.
Sinister opens as Ellison (Ethan Hawke) and his wife and two kids move into a new home. Ellison’s job as a real-life crime fiction writer is a subject of contempt for the local police, who resent his past novel’s portrayal of officers of the law, and for his family, who have to deal with constantly moving and the grisly details of the stories he chases. When unpacking boxes, Ellison discovers a box marked as “Home Movies” in the attic. The footage and details on the 8mm reels are disturbing to say the least. Several different families are shown murdered with a mysterious fgure lurking in the distance. Pretty soon the footage begins to effect the daily life of Ellison and his family as weird events begin to happen. Further investigation by Ellison and a young and enthusiastic deputy uncovers bizarre ancient symbols, an angular faced demon named Bagul, and a pattern of murders that may have deadly results for the new home owners.
Much like Derrickson’s previous under-appreciated gem, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a lot of attention is paid to developing the characters. Ethan Hawke is more than capable of handling the weight of the subject and the endless screen time he’s given. One can argue that this is in a lot of ways more of a story of how a writer’s job can effect his day to day life. He constantly drinks, smokes, and lies, but Hawke still manages to make the guy likable. Sinister doesn’t necessarily feel like a family drama masking itself as a horror film, but instead, balances the chilling moments with genuine scenes of humor and humanity between Ellison, his wife, and the scene-stealing deputy played by James Ransone. All of the actors involved elevate the pitch perfect writing of first-time screenwriter C. Robert Cargill. After sharpening his teeth as a film critic and novelist – which I’m sure much of the inspiration for this film stems from – Cargill teams-up with genre veteran Derrickson and the results are inspiring. It’s not often where you see so much heart and knowledge of the horror genre on screen in a perfectly paced mix.
Many of the scares in the film are accompanied with loud, blaring sounds which will undoubtedly make many jump. It’s a tactic that works no doubt but could have been toned down just a tad. One of the scares in the film, which is probably the highest I’ve ever jumped in a theater, would have been just as surprising without the blaring music cue. Though I still have to hand it to them for making what will most likely be the best and most memorable scare of the year. The real fear that will stick with you once you leave the theater does not come from the sudden, jolting scares but from four of the “home movies” Ellison watches projected in his office. There’s a disquieting, eerie feeling that comes with watching these short segments. All of them are simple in theory and execution, but elicit more of a fear in the viewer based on their unflinching and direct approach to the subject. When Derrickson isn’t creeping out the audience through the footage of the murdered families, he draws you into the screen by doing a number of wide angle shots. My eyes quickly darted all over the screen as I waited for something to move or appear in the background like what Ethan Hawkes’ character finds in the background of some of the videos. The ranch style home, where almost the entirety of the movie takes place, is a refreshing take on the haunted house facade by ditching the overly used two-story, ominous structure. Cinematographer Chris Norr masterfully shoots the long and narrow hallways in a fashion that makes them feel wide and open. At the same time, the unflashy camera work and modest home almost create a neutral and blank canvas for both the actors to expose their true emotions and for the blood to be later smeared all over; like the posters for the film reveal. All my praise for the film aside – plus, understanding what the filmmaker was going for – the grim finale does feel a tad more restrained than I would have liked. That’s a minor complaint though in a film with so much to praise.
Sinister manages to be both an engaging character study of how the horror writing business can affect the ones you love and a horror film with an emphasis on building dread. Many might say the subtlety of the film makes for more of a boring experience. However, this is not the film that is here to deliver the blood and guts. It works on a level that doesn’t need to shock you every five minutes with insipid jump scares or gore shots. In the end, Sinister is one of the best horror movies of the year and a film that non-horror fans and critics may actually settle into as well. Furthermore, it’s a film that is permeated with enough unsettling imagery that it will most likely be one of the most talked about horror films for years to come.