(15) Running time: 110 minutes
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Sinister arrives after a barrage of publicity, and with the tagline “from the producers of Insidious”, I would imagine many horror fans will be expecting more of the same, me included in fact. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong: Sinister is nothing like Insidious, it does not have the energy and intent to scare like Insidious did. No, Sinister is a different beast altogether! Here we have a slow burning, atmospheric and mentally challenging thriller with some horror thrown in for good measure. Sinister is all about the mood and atmosphere, and relies on a great story and script, some terrific performances and a soundtrack chilling enough to give you the willies for weeks to come (including a terrific use of Boards of Canada’s “Gyroscope”)
Director Scott Derrickson proved his worth with the excellent The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Hellraiser: Inferno, and with Sinister, he has cemented himself as one of the most exciting directors working in horror today. Not afraid to give fans something a little different, it is doubtful Sinister will appeal to a mass audience, and those going in to this film expecting the most terrifying film they will see all year will be disappointed. Instead, this film gets under your skin, gets inside your head and if you let it, will leave you considerably unsettled come the final moments. Here is a film for the more patient horror fan, a film which builds slowly to the point you become so immersed in the mystery, when the scares do come, they are very effective. However, it is the mystery and the atmosphere which drives this film, not its scares, so be prepared for something a little more mature, shall we say, than films like Insidious. Sinister is not about the fun of being scared, so let’s clear that up right now, it is about taking the viewer on a journey to places they might not want to tread, but curiosity will get the better of you and, like Ethan Hawkes Ellison Oswalt, you just have to know.
Ellison Oswalt is a writer who has had his fifteen minutes of fame, but desperately wants it back. A crime writer, he focuses on cases which may or may not be unsolved, and digs into the stories behind those cases, including looking at what the police have done. One best seller got him the fame and riches he desired, but ten years on he is becoming less relevant and needs one last hit to secure his families future. His wife Tracy (Rylance) is supportive, but does not want to see her husband rip the family apart as he has done previously due to getting too deep into his writing. His twelve year old son Trevor suffers night terrors, something which Tracy blames on the horrific crimes his Dad is working on. The youngest in the family is Ashley, and she too has been affected by her Dad’s work, and her way of coping is by drawing pictures on her bedroom walls. Ellison has moved the family to a new home with the intent of covering one last crime to get his final best seller. The story involves the hanging of a family in their backyard, and Ellison has moved his beloved family into the same house, but has not told them the crime happened there.
No sooner have they moved in does Ellison find a box containing a collection of super 8 films, and locking himself away in his ‘office’ he studies the films. Each one shows a grisly ritualistic murder of a family with one child surviving but going missing. Ellison becomes desperate to find out the truth, and further studying of the found footage videos reveals a creepy character lurking in the background of each video, someone called “Mr Boogie” in a child’s drawings, but according to a University professor of the Occult, this “Mr Boogie” is actually a Demon called Baghuul ‘Eater of Children’. What does it mean that he is appearing in these videos, and with strange occurrences happening during the night (a large dog appears, a scorpion and a snake, banging in the attic, a presence is felt), is Ellison’s family safe? As he heads further and further towards the edge of his own sanity, and with his drinking increasing, the family worry about their Father and things begin to fall apart. The help of a local Deputy only adds to the mystery of the videos, and Ellison becomes ever more desperate to find a connection, and the truth.
Derrickson expertly builds his film to incredible levels of suspense and tension, and the truly amazing use of music and sounds create a level of menace so unsettling it can at times become overpowering. The use of terrific editing and camera angles, and the more often than not shooting at night build an atmosphere of creepiness that will have you on the edge of your seat, and it is usually when Derrickson has you in the palm of his hands that he will deliver a scare that is guaranteed to make you jump. Imagery and scenes will stay in your head and leave you feeling cold and unsettled, and thankfully the mystery surrounding the videos is stretched out as much as it can be. The mystery will keep you involved in the film, and Hawkes mesmerising performances means you will make a connection with the characters too.
However, Sinister is not perfect. It is not as scary as all the adverts are saying, and sadly the trailers for the film (if you have seen them) spoil a number of the scares as you already know what is coming. The film does suffer from obvious clichés like leaving the lights off, or investigating sounds most normal people would run a mile from. Some of the families actions feel a little too desperate in order to keep the film moving forward, and the film suffers a recurring trend these days in horror in having a pathetic money shot at the end. However, for all its faults, Sinister is a thrilling ride, and Derrickson once again proves you don’t need scare after scare, or blood and guts to satisfy the horror crowd. Personally, I prefer films like this that have a mystery at its heart which gets the viewer involved, and when that mystery is presented as good as this, with such a great cast and care and attention to almost every detail designed for maximum impact, you cannot go far wrong. If you are a lover of slow building horror, and have the patience to allow that horror to unfold as it pleases, then Sinister is for you. Not hugely scary, but very very, ahem, Sinister!