October 12, 2012
Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt
Juliet Rylance as Tracy
Fred Dalton Thompson as Sheriff
James Ransone as Deputy
Michael Hall D'Addario as Trevor
Clare Foley as Ashley
Most horror freaks I know saw their first horror movie at a young age, usually against the wishes of their parents, and suffered nightmares as a result. Ironically, these traumatic horror experiences in the formative years foster a lifelong quest to recreate that feeling of terror in adulthood, often without success; But they keep trying. Ladies and gentlemen, your quest may have ended withSinister, directed by Scott Derrickson.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime author, and not a very popular one with law enforcement. Ten years ago he wrote a book titled “Kentucky Blood” that wasn’t kind to local law enforcement investigating the murder he wrote about, so now whenever he moves to a new place the local sheriff is always there to greet him… and invite him to leave town and never look back. After a couple of failed follow-ups to “Kentucky Blood”, Ellison is hungry for a hit, and thinks he will find it by moving his family into the house where a family was murdered by hanging in the oak tree out back.
While getting settled in the new house, Ellison comes across a box in the attic with the words “home movies” written on the outside with ballpoint pen. Inside are several reels of Super-8 film with titles such as “pool party” and “family barbeque”, and included is a projector to view the reels. As each film rolls details of how the family that lived in this house before was murdered are played out, and with each new revelation Ellison descends deeper into the darkness of an evil that puts his entire family in danger.
Sinister is the scariest horror movie to come out in years. Clearly, that is a bold statement to make, but I haven’t been this engrossed in the terror of a filmed horror story in as long as I can remember. No kidding.
The story combines a true-crime murder mystery with real-time murder and a supernatural entity, and this blend results in a plotline that grabs hold of the audience and doesn’t let go for the entire 110-minute runtime. Most of us have happened upon “true crime” specials on cable television and gotten sucked in in spite of ourselves, so it is easy to see how an overlay of a mystery can effectively lure you in and hold you hostage until the final reveal. Using that concept as a basis forSinister is a brilliant strategy that pays huge dividends. A story about a crime novelist who purposely moves into a crime scene to do research about a brutal and unsolved murder is ripe for something to go terribly wrong, and terribly wrong it indeed goes.
The performances of Ethan Hawke as well as Juliet Rylance as his wife Tracy and Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Folley as their children Trevor and Ashley are spot on, but ultimately all these performers really needed to do is get out of the way of the story, which carries this film completely. The music is used expertly to do the same thing – support the strong story and the build tension and fear. The dialogue, cinematography, editing, sets – all of it is perfect, yet none of it stands out on it’s own, but rather supports this telling of an obsessed novelist in a cursed house who will seemingly sacrifice everything, even sanity, to regain the limelight. No individual filmmaking element upstages any other, blending seamlessly to create the frightening whole. The package is quite impressive, and unfortunately extremely uncommon – not simply in horror, but in modern film in general.
There is not much particular gore in Sinister, although there are certainly horrible images to be had. There are “jump scares” too, but somehow they didn’t feel as cheap as that damn cat that always leaps from the pantry the instant we let our guard down. The scares are achieved often by fleeting images accompanied by a superb soundtrack, and by “bumps in the night” that are every bit as scary as those experienced by an 8 year old hiding under the covers with a flashlight.
Co-writer and director Scott Derrickson is no stranger to crime-drama/horror, as he is also behindThe Exorcism of Emily Rose – a definite under-appreciated and under-viewed horror gem. Derrickson has also been behind other horror offerings such as The Day the Earth Stood Still(2008) and Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), but bringing crime drama and horror together is where the magic happens. This man is a storyteller, and it seems clear that he is moved by crime stories with a tragic and fearful end, and can bring his own passion for these kinds of stories to the movie screen.
Admittedly, this piece about Sinister is being written while the “high” of watching the film is still fresh in my consciousness, and the tightness of fear still lingers in my chest. Perhaps the emotion of actually, truly being scared in a horror movie for the first time in years is clouding judgment and critical treatment of this film, but the intention is to share that experience here, before it wears off. Here at BHM we hear many, many horror freaks wistfully lamenting about the difficulty in finding a horror movie that truly conjures those fearful feelings we long to recreate from childhood, and I can honestly say that for me, Sinister finally did it.