Sinister Review: Hold Me?

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Sinister Review: Hold Me?

By Agent Bedhead | Film Reviews | October 13, 2012 | Comments ()


For the past few hours, I've been trying to wrap my head around the conclusion that Sinister is the real deal in horror even though the concept sounds ridiculous. The end result is due to three things -- a believably portrayed protagonist, a dreary atmosphere and a relentless intensity -- added to the fact that the vast majority of the story takes place in the shadows of night even though the story must span at least a few weeks. Daylight only seems to last for a few moments before the filmmakers (director/co-writer Scott Derrickson of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and producer Jason Blum of the Paranormal Activity franchise) plunge their characters back into darkness, and the film's sense of pacing is excellent with the first half filled with a sense of dread before things grow progressively more frightening. Sinister is a profoundly disturbing movie that is violent but not too gory (except for the presence of a great amount of blood), and even though the protagonist makes all the wrong moves, he is driven to do so not only out of curiosity but because it's his job to do so, and he's under a great deal of financial pressure to succeed. Ethan Hawke's doucheface plays into his role excellently. He conveys the right combination of desperation and sheer inquisitiveness to pull off a believable performance in a movie that draws unavoidable comparisons to The Ring, 8MM, and The Shining.

Hawke is Ellison Oswald, a true crime writer (and a bit of a hack) who is looking for his next big hit, which is about ten years overdue. His massive ego leads him to believe that it's perfectly OK to move his family into a home where a quadruple murder occurred the year prior, and of course he doesn't tell his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), about the house's history. Ellison's intention is to use the home to get him into the proper mood to write about what happened there and also to uncover clues as to the fifth member of the unfortunate family, a child, who went missing when the awfulness went down. Ellisson's son, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), is already prone to night terrors, and his daughter, Ashley (Clare Foley), is a precocious artist; neither of the kids are happy to have been uprooted from their previous home, and both of them act out in certain ways as they familiarize themselves with their new surroundings. Dad needs to make some money with this book, and everyone tries to understand that while the circumstances aren't ideal, it's only a temporary situation. Or one would hope.

To make matters more complicated, the family's new house is situated in unfriendly territory where the Sheriff's department is wary of both Ellison's notoriety and his tendency to throw law enforcement under the bus in his books. Add this lack of professional support to the fact that Tracy dearly loves her husband but is tired of his crap, and Ellison has a perfect justification to not tell anyone when weird things start happening in the house at night. The dude is effectively isolated even though he's still surrounded by his family and is free to come and go from the house as he pleases, and when things start to go downhill, Ellison quickly descends into a whiskey-hazed jumble of nerves.

When Ellison discovers a box of Super 8 film in the attic, he briefly wonders who put it there but then his practical side takes over because -- hey -- look at all these clues for his case! Soon, he finds that he is in possession of a series of progressively more disturbing snuff films where all the cases are disturbingly connectible. Ellison really thinks he's got a handle on this entire book business and might even have some bonus material from the prior cases to throw in too, but it quickly becomes clear that this house is affected by something at least slightly supernatural, which may or may not have something to do with the spooky face that appears (and stares back) from within each reel of film.

Yes, the spooky face looks kind of like a member of Slipknot, and yes, this is a found footage film, and yes, there are several reasons why this film shouldn't work, but it sure as hell does. The found-footage gimmick is used to grand effect here, and the grainy Super 8 projection adds to the creepiness of the images projected onto Ellison's office wall. The guy makes nearly every mistake there is in the book while investigating the many bumps in the night. Like Ellison, we want to look away from the horrors in these reels of film, but the sheer momentum propels us to keep watching. Are there a million (potentially annoying) jump scares? This film has them in abundance, but somehow, they are very effective as well. Overall, Sinister is an intense experience -- but to say any more about the plot would give too much away.

On paper, the movie looks like hell, but in practice, it will likely scare the hell out of you at some point. To wit: My feet, which I propped up on the seat in front of me, kept jumping despite my efforts to maintain a cool control; during the third act of the movie, I got up out of my seat and moved closer to other audience members (who I generally try to stay as far away from as possible) to provide the illusion of comfort; upon arriving home, my poor daughter had to accompany her own mother into the bathroom because I couldn't be alone in a room after watching this movie; at this very moment (the morning after), I cannot even sit in the office with the lights out (as is the custom) to write this review. Was it worth it? Obviously! It's been a long time since a movie creeped me out like Sinister does, and that's refreshing in a year where the horror movies have generally been laughable.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • The Pink Hulk

    Um...yeah...that movie was pretty fucking scary. Great, spooky addition to my Halloween movie queue.

  • L.O.V.E.

    My son is prone to night terrors.

    Brilliant idea! Let's move to a haunted house! Because I 'm a sociopath who doesn't give two rat droppings about my family!

    **End sarcasm**

    (Fine review, though.)

  • Fredo

    Sounds like a much more fun haunted house ride than the haunted house down the street.

    I'm game.

  • Ed

    Meh, I'd still go to the haunted house

  • ,

    So is the wife a moron or is this set pre-Internet? I mean, are there really many women who wouldn't be even remotely interested in the history of the new house, not interested enough to hop online for 30 seconds and plug the address into Google and see what comes up?

    "Honey, we need to move and we need to move into THIS house. Right now."

    "Um, OK."

    *Goes back to humming and crocheting*

    Are there no neighbors around to give her strange looks, or chuckle to themselves and shake their heads as the new family moves in, to the point she wonders what their problem is and asks? This all just happened a year ago, not like everyone living nearby would have forgotten or moved or something.

    And even if she doesn't care, what about the kids? They don't want to move, you'd think they'd happily conspire to dig up dirt on the house, or the neighbors, or the school system or something in about five seconds on their iPhones and put up a fight. Did the kids have no kid friends taunt them with "You're moving into a murder house! You're moving into a murder house!" and then tell mom about it?

    What kind of bubble are these people living in?

    And the box in the attic? How did the cops overlook that in a murder house, especially when a kid went missing? Nobody thought to see if the kid somehow hid in the attic?

    Or was it, "I didn't find the kid, lieutenant. Oh, there IS a a box of 8mm film reels up there, but there couldn't possibly be any clues on them to what happened in the murder house or where the missing kid is. So OK if I just leave them there for the next family to find?"

    "Yeah, detective, that'll be OK. Good work."

    I know all horror depends to a large degree on suspension of disbelief, but if those are just a couple things I can cherry pick out of the review, how much am I going to be rolling my eyes at the actual movie?

  • special snowflake

    Yes, Bedhead, please answer each and every one of the questions posed by , and all the other queries following those; surely you didn't think we would just let your review stand 'as is' and not expect you to address every followup question as it comes to mind, or to defend and justify the suspicious plot developments or other convenient contrivances the filmmakers employ that we should all be forewarned about??
    Listen it's all well and good that you're honest about being spooked by the movie, and doubly so in admitting it was "worth it."

    But if we can't rely on you to give us even a ballpark estimate as to the amount of eye-rolling activity we should be prepared for, you leave us little choice except to take only your review, and the reportage of your refreshlingly "creeped out" impression following the viewing of the movie, as our only guideline to assist us in navigating the experience ourselves.
    You're relatively new at this movie review gig, aren't you?

  • disqus_khiNE2lxJo

    There aren't any spoilers in this post except for maybe of the first ten minutes of exposition. None of the things you got out of the review actually have much to do with the movie. The family was killed around thirty years ago. The family is used to being harassed due to the father's books, because a killer went free due to one of the books he wrote after he became famous. The wife isn't going to really be suspicious when people are giving her funny looks at the grocery store. The husband has moved the family into houses near where murders have taken place before. His wife doesn't like it, but they have all kind of family issues that lead to her not looking the place up before they moved.

    At no point are you supposed to think the police just didn't notice the box sitting in the attic. The characters that know about the box don't even consider that a possibility.

  • ,

    Thirty years ago?

    "it’s perfectly OK to move his family into a home where a quadruple murder occurred the year prior"

    What am I missing?

    Just asking because it's been awhile since even a half decent horror movie showed up ("Drag Me to Hell") and I might consider this if it doesn't make me stoopid. But I'm getting a stoopid vibe.

  • !

    The murder in that particular house happened in 2011. Hence the belief by a true crime writer that he could still solve the mystery of what happened to the missing child. If it was a 30-year-old crime, there wouldn't have been nearly as much likelihood of dangling clues and not much fame/profit involved with solving that type of mystery. In the box of film reels, there was indeed a 30-year-old murder revealed as well. In all, there were five reels spaced several years apart.

  • PDamian

    ARGH. There's no way to answer those questions without spoiler-ing the entire movie. SPOILERS AHEAD; YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.
    Can't speak to the Google thing. Some folks turn to the Internet for answers to everything (I do, certainly); others take the word of those they love. YMMV.

    Mom and kids do indeed get strange looks and taunts when they venture out. They also get some shade thrown at them by the cops, right at the beginning of the film. However, the movie makes clear that the entire family is already dealing with serious issues when they move into the house. The boy has a history of night terrors, and has emotional problems that are only hinted at. The girl is highly imaginative and creative -- the kind of imagination that borders on obssessiveness. Mom is trying to hold the family together while Dad drinks and chases one last shot at fame, a fame he denies he's seeking even as he watches old video of himself on talk shows. And on top of it all, there's the spectre of money issues and the fact that the whole family's going down if Dad's new book doesn't rake in some big bucks, and soon. In the middle of the family maelstrom, the exterior strangeness is just one more thing in the chain of one-damned-thing-after-another that this family is experiencing.

    I could explain the box of film, but that would be TOO spoiler-ish. Let's just say that the mystery of the box is explained at the end of the film.

  • MDH23

    saw it last night, B+. solid movie, and the protagonist's career allows for at least some explanation for why he makes the (dumb) choices typical of main characters in horror films. The pacing is excellent, and the plot itself was original enough to create the kind of surprise and tension horror moves that aren't torture-porn need to be scary.
    I didn't leave the theater scared of going home or wake up frightened by bumps in the night - but then again, i don't have kids, and as the trailer makes clear, children are the magnet for this boogie-man. Just another reason not to have kids.

  • PDamian

    The cinematography is indeed interesting, but the sepia tone of the header photo is a bit misleading. It's a small point; truly, the movie is fantastic, and I say that as a committed horror film fan. The found footage is astonishingly creepy, and the movie's plot builds beautifully at a steady pace to an undeniably horrific conclusion. Hawke's turn as a writer chasing his next big success is terrific; he's not an actor for whom I've ever had much regard, but he's great here.

    One of the movie's delights is that there are no out-of-step performances. It's Hawke's moment to shine, and he's on screen almost the entirety of the film, but there are strong performances from everyone involved. The child actors are right on point, specially the little girl, and there's a particularly good turn from James Ransone (Treme) as a starstruck, local yokel deputy (amusingly referred to as "Deputy So and So") who's a lot smarter than he seems. Fred Dalton Thompson does his usual down-home Southern-inflected authority figure schtick to good effect, and Juliet Rylance is nicely horrified as the mom/wife watching her husband fall apart. I also appreciated that Rylance's character is neither a doormat nor a harpy; she makes clear to her husband that she's thisclose to picking up the kids and walking out if he doesn't get his shit together, but not in a shrewish or overly emotive manner, so that when she finally does realize what's going on, her anger and fear are that much more poignant.

    I went into this hoping for the best but not too optimistic, as the "found footage" genre is getting a little tired, at least where horror movies are concerned, and anyways, I wasn't looking forward to the inevitable headache from bouncing pictures. It works here, very well indeed. Much of the reason for that is that the found footage is 8mm, which requires a very steady hand for good filming. In the film, the camera is set down or mounted on something, so that there's little picture jerking, and even in the panning shots, the camera is held steady. Of course, the fact that you can see the action clearly only makes it more horrifying.

    Sorry, this comment ran long. In short: excellent movie, go see it.

  • Torgotronic

    Sounds interesting/good; plus, if the screengrab above is any indication, the cinematography looks cool.

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