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.