Written & Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, and Clare Foley
MPAA: R – For Disturbing Violent Images and Some Terror]
Is it just me, or is this becoming a trend? Last year had the release of Insidious, a pretty good horror film bent on the supernatural focusing mostly on atmosphere and jump-scares instead of gore, and with a title that is essentially an adjective for just about anything going bump in the night. This year, from the producers of that film (Though having pretty much nothing else to do with each other, production-wise), comes Sinister, a really good horror film bent on the supernatural focusing mostly on atmosphere and jump-scares instead of gore, and with a title that is essentially an adjective for just about anything going bump in the night. But don’t take this as a statement that the two films are in any way the same. Insidious certainly had a strong atmosphere, but it seemed to rely on the jump-scares more often than tension, and it jumps the shark, plot-wise, in the final act. Sinister doesn’t have those problems. It’s smart, incredibly well-acted, and…well, it’s really freakin’ scary.
Sinister opens with a deeply sinister opening shot (Pun #1) that I dare not spoil, but I have to point out is one of the creepiest introductions to a horror film I’ve seen in quite a while. We then move on to the Oswalt family moving into their new home. The father, Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime novelist who investigates real unsolved cases and attempts to discover the secrets behind them so he can share the true story to the world. He’s moved his whole family to a house where some grisly murders have taken place and decides to not tell them about its dark past so he could get cracking on his research without interference. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), meanwhile, is reasonably worried about their children being exposed to the material he writes about, still unaware of what truly happened in the house.
As Ellison packs the boxes in, he notices a sinister looking box (Pun #2) of Super 8 home movies lying in the attic. You can almost say that he’s uncovered some “found footage”, hmm? As Ellison views these 8mm reels, he starts noticing that they each have a pattern: Each one shows a family happily hanging out amongst themselves, and then it cuts to their grisly murders. But that’s not the most sinister aspect (Pun #3). With each of the murders, just one of the children would be missing, never to be heard from again. Ellison, noticing these patterns, starts analyzing these reels until he ends up crossing paths with a supernatural entity that awakens once you see his image.
Before I head on to what makes Sinister just so damn effective, there’s one thing that must be made absolutely clear: Many critics like to dismiss a horror film if it has a whole bunch of jump scares. It should be noted that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with jump-scares so long as they’re executed properly. And to execute a jump-scare properly, it needs the same basic-building blocks that all horror movies need: Tension, atmosphere, and the right amount of build-up to make the big jump feel less like cheap manipulation and more like a visceral payoff. Basically, a good jump-scare is like an orgasm. Yes, there’s nothing really “intellectual” about it, and it’s solely about primal urges. But when it’s built-up properly, the payoff feels satisfying, if you know what I mean.
Sinister exceeds in this field. Yes, there are plenty of big jump-scares to be had, but that’s not the main thing that makes the film scary. There’s a deep, omnipresent sense of dread right from the word go, and it permeates the screen in just about every frame. There are a number of elements that factor into this, like the disturbing subject matter, the insanely unsettling sound design (one of the most unnerving soundtracks you’ll hear for a horror film in a while), the creepy imagery, and more, yet it still feels sort of unexplainable. You can never really tell just how it actually gets to you despite being made up of some familiar horror movie tropes. It’s all in the execution. You truly get the sense that once this supernatural being has been awakened, our main characters are completely doomed, and absolutely nothing could save them.
And speaking of main characters, the performances really sell the terror too. Ethan Hawke is rather excellent as Ellison, the obsessive author. He gives a level of pathos and depth to his character that horror movies often don’t create that, while still not terribly introspective and deep, still gives him some defining traits that allow us to root for him. This is important because some of his decisions he ends up making can be seen as “stupid” because of how his obsession ends up hindering the safety of his family. And this would be a problem with lesser actors, writers, and directors, but here it’s handled well enough that while you still don’t support his decisions, you can at least empathize with them.
Our main character’s obsession with digging into the mystery makes the film almost a hybrid of both horror and surprisingly a mystery crime-drama. The mystery actually feels compelling, it’s intelligently told, and the film deviously reveals clues bit by bit to keep you invested in its central storyline without getting distracted by the main scares. This melding of atmosphere, characters, and a genuinely interesting mystery makes for a satisfying package.
But perhaps the real stand-out in this film is an incredibly sinister score and sound design (Pun #4) that is just entirely unnerving. It’s hard to explain, but it has this industrial quality not unlike Nine Inch Nails, but it also employs some strange, unsettling sound effects into the music that take odd, disturbing forms. One of the tracks sounds almost like a person who is huddling in a corner crying to himself. The best way to describe it is if you could translate the word “grimy” into audio form. It just sounds icky and uncomfortable and it makes you want to barf…in a good way, of course.
This unsettling quality is consistent throughout the whole film and it reaches its apex in the final scene, which amps everything that has already been set-up to eleven. This is the right sort of horror climax. It’s terrifying, unsettling, and ties all the loose ends, but it doesn’t go overboard with loudness, chases, or anything of that nature (A problem that Insidious clearly had). But more importantly: It’s sinisterly bleak (Pun #5) in ways that few mainstream horror films rarely are. It goes in an incredibly dark direction that, despite the obvious clues that permeated the rest of the film, I still didn’t see coming. And the way it’s executed just holds on that bleakness and doesn’t let it go until the end-credits. It’s a remarkable climax that few horror films execute properly.
Director Scott Derrickson knows how to milk each scene of all the tension its worth, and shows a surprising amount of restraint in terms of just how much time is spent essentially just watching Ethan Hawke wandering dark, sinister hallways (Pun #6) with a phone flashlight on him, and how many of those moments would have almost “nothing” happening. Derrickson also co-wrote the screenplay for the film, but what’s even more interesting to note is that the other co-writer is C. Robert Cargill.
Okay, a little backstory: C. Robert Cargill was (and probably still is) a writer and critic for Ain’t It Cool News. So already, we know that we’re watching a horror film from a guy who knows an extensive amount about the genre and film in general. But one thing that’s interesting to note is that this is a movie that is written by a critic, and the whole movie revolves around a character that does nothing but analyze films to find small details in them. And what’s even more interesting about that is that our main character is actually punished for over-analyzing these films. Hell, analyzing the details is the catalyst that awakens the sinister demon (Pun #7).
Could it be that Sinister is actually a film not just about criticizing movies, but also the danger of looking too much into films? A film about how critics are actually chastised for reading too much in between the lines and trying to discover the hidden meanings and cultural contexts behind them? Does the demon represent the filmmaker? The audience? Does this message even go that deep? Perhaps I am looking too hard into this film solely because of the connection there. But hey! Over-analyzing is what the movie is about. So who knows…
All in all, Sinister is just a supremely executed horror film. It doesn’t really revolutionize the genre, nor does it even offer much that is “fresh” or “original”, but it refines what we’ve already seen into a near sheen, and provides enough clever writing and twists to make it satisfying.
Final Verdict: Sinister is an unsettling horror film that expertly builds its scares up with a strong atmosphere, a constant state of dread, bleak subject matter, and a bleaker finale. But it’s the well-defined characters and intelligently told mystery that elevate it into something slightly more. It won’t light the movie world on fire or anything, but god damnit, it’s just really scary. That’s about all you could ask for in an October-released horror film, and this delivers. Sinister is just downright sinister (Pun #8).
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on WordPress, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out CinEffect with their own reviews, articles, or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some pants to change. Bye!