Sinister (United States, 2012)

October 11, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sinister Poster

Someone finally figured out a way to make the concept of "found footage" interesting, and it's by incorporating it into the film's overall scope rather than employing it as the governing factor. Sinister is an intense horror film that starts out masquerading as something more mundane. It's hair-raising and gripping, although some of its narrative turns require a significant level of "suspension of disbelief." In true horror movie tradition, characters do things that are head-scratchingly dumb. Once you accept those logic-defying moments, the movie works with diabolical effectiveness. And, even though the ending is inescapable (and therefore predictable), that does little to diminish its effectiveness.

Sinister opens with a disturbing scene: a Super-8 "home movie" that shows the hanging deaths of four people. As the narrative progresses, we learn that this is one of several amateur snuff films in existence. There's one of a family burning to death in a car, one of a multiple drowning, one where victims have their throats slit, and a particularly nasty one in which the murder weapon is a lawn mower. During the course of Sinister's running, we see all (or almost all) of these Super 8 movies; the rest of the film is presented using traditional, 3rd-person cinematography (non-shaky cam variety). One element that makes the "found footage" approach work uncommonly well in Sinister is that it doesn’t hijack the style. There's no lingering question about why someone is always filming.

Ethan Hawke, who has been spending time recently in independent productions, plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author in desperate need of a new bestseller. Along with his supportive wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and his two children, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley), he moves into the house where the hanging victims lived and begins researching the circumstances of their deaths. In the attic, he finds a box of Super-8 movies that seem innocuous until Ellison watches them. For about the first 30 minutes, Sinister unfolds more like a mystery/thriller than a horror excusrion as Ellison's investigation points toward the possible involvement of a serial killer. Then unexplained things begin to happen: loud noises in the attic, a film projector starting on its own, and a demonic face moving in a supposedly "still" photograph on a computer screen.

Sinister features its share of effective "boo!" moments. The makeup for the mysterious figure is well-done. It's genuinely unsettling and doesn't feel like a re-harsh of any of the horror movie icons. Also, because it's shown only fleetingly, it never loses its power to disturb as a result of overexposure. Director Scott Derrickson (whose resume includes the first-person horror film The Exorcism of Emily Rose as well as the big-budget remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) develops an atmosphere that emphasizes isolation and claustrophobia. Aside from a friendly local deputy (James Ransone), Ellison has no one beyond his immediate family to turn to for support. There's no generic best friend or brother. The suspense builds in tandem with a burgeoning sense of doom. It's a slow-burn approach that may not work on those infected with a need for brash, fast-paced gore-fests. Sinister is plenty grisly, but some of the bloodiest instances are left to the viewer's imagination.

Hawke is an effective "everyman." Here's an ordinary guy ill-equipped to cope with the supernatural. He's not presented as the most altruistic of people. He's affectionate toward his children but wouldn't win Father of the Year. He's obsessed with fame and fortune; getting back to #1 on the best-seller list is his driving motivation. He drinks too much and ignores common sense. At heart, he's a selfish guy. Acclaimed theater actress Juliet Rylance has little more to do than play the clichéd "supportive wife" role until things get to the point where "supportive" equates to "stupid." It's somehow remarkable that she never packs up the kids and leaves. Vincent D'Onofrio and Fred Dalton Thompson have small but important parts as an occult expert and a county sheriff, respectively.

In developing Sinister, director Derrickson and his co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, display an unerring understanding of what will unsettle viewers in a darkened auditorium. They borrow liberally from earlier horror efforts, with The Shining being the most obvious influence. Derrickson's use of sound is particularly important. The bumps in the night are loud enough to cause viewers to jump in their seats and Christopher Young's discordant score is perfect for the material. It has been a long time since there has been a genuinely creepy horror movie available to audiences in search of a good Halloween scare; Sinister provides that missing October ingredient.

Sinister (United States, 2012)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley, James Ransone
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Cinematography: Chris Norr
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1