Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nicholas King
1/2 (out of 4)
This theme park ride sucks.
It’s amazing what a good soundtrack can do to a film. Sinister is a movie with such a soundtrack – a series of ominous, eerie pieces reminiscent of Session 9, The Shining, or Seven. A good horror score can set the mood just right, instilling a choking atmosphere of dread. Not that Sinister doesn’t have other stuff going for it – it has good performances from the main cast (including main lead Ethan Hawke) and it puts an interesting spin on the found-footage, serial killer, and supernatural genres. In the end, it’s terrifying in its implications, again proving that full-out gore isn’t necessary to get under the skin.
Sinister is actually similar to an old fashioned fairy tale, rooted in old school Satan/boogeyman stories, stuff about otherworldly evils coming for your children. It’s almost something I could see coming from a younger Guillermo del Toro but it’s much darker, taking on some elements of Asian horror (where the real and the unreal are typically given equal weight). It stars Hawke as crime writer Ellison Oswalt, who had a hit crime novel years ago, but his later work hasn’t been selling. In hopes of having lightning strike twice, he moves his family – wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), and son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) to a home that is the site of a recent family murder (unbeknownst to them). His hope is to solve the case (a family hung from the backyard tree and a girl gone missing) while turning it into his next huge bestseller. Nobody is enthusiastic about Ellison working on another grisly murder topic, least of all his wife or the local police sheriff (played just right by Fred Thompson).
Ethan Hawke screens a double feature of Troll 2 and Birdemic.
On moving day he goes up into the attic and finds a box of a projector and old film reels and almost immediately finds himself in over his head. The reels are shot footage of murders of different families from different times – the recent hanging murder, a family being drowned in 1966, another burned to death in 1979, another with their throats slit, and a very uncomfortable incident involving a lawn mower. The footage provides clues that lead him to answers he isn’t ready for, but he presses on, the fantasies of fame and fortune in his head. Oswalt becomes so obsessed with the mystery that he ignores all warnings and dangers coming up around him, including strange visions and his son’s increasingly disturbing night terrors. That’s not even taking into account the horrible snuff films that drive him to drink, each roll of film more evil than the previous one (multiple 8MMs in one movie – could Nicolas Cage handle that?). It leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion that is creepy despite the fact that you kinda see it coming. There is an implication that Ellison was doomed the minute he decided to move in to the house; Sinister has a message that some truths should always remain buried, and it means it.
While trying not to give away important plot points, I will tell you that Sinister is giving some sly commentary on the effects of violence on children who witness it. Given the recent stories in the press of mass murder (Sandy Hook, Aurora) there has been some side discussions of video game and movie violence and their effect on the youth. Granted, this has been going on for a long time, but Sinister has a clever way of commenting on it. It’s reminiscent of how little Carol Anne argued with her shrink that talking about problems will bring them back, or how nobody can get killed by Freddy unless they are afraid of him. I think there’s also a testament to the power of film, and perhaps evil can find immortality there (see also John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, In the Mouth of Madness and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). You don’t need to do any deep readings to get a kick out of the film, though; I enjoyed James Ransone’s performance as the star-struck deputy who secretly becomes Ellison’s contact inside the police department, and I found the found-footage segments – families enjoying themselves before being brutally massacred – to be very uncomfortable stuff (without resorting to Saw-type gore).
The last remaining copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special
The supernatural turn midway through the film was slightly surprising to me but it never threatened to take me out of the film like Insidious did. The film shows just enough of the “other side” to keep things interesting but not too much (I liked the scene of Ellison’s movie file watching him and another involve ghostly children dancing around him). Sinister works for me because it understands that terrible evils exist in the world and suggests that they might be like viruses spreading through humanity because their stories are passed down through generations. Then it tells you that there are some truths we really don’t want to know.
– Bill Gordon
Director Scott Derrickson is also responsible for The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), which I found to be one of the better Hellraiser sequels. The Sinister DVD bonus features include interviews with true crime experts like author Steve Hodel (Black Dahlia Avenger) and Chip Jacobs (The Ascension of Jerry) and a short about homes that are murder crime scenes, including the unsolved Villisca Axe Murders of 1912 (where an entire family, including 6 children, were massacred). The short of it: real estate nightmares. There’s also two commentary tracks: one with director Derrickson and another with Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill.
Buy Sinister on Blu-ray
Buy Sinister on DVD