Directors: Scott Derrickson
Release Date: October 2012
Horror films may be doing well at the box office, but, as a fan, it appears that the genre is bleeding out with every new lazy found-footage film and Saw release. Great horror was once about interesting characters, an uncanny sense of atmosphere, and big ideas. Now, a horror movie is mostly about jump scares and the only character is in the way a character dies.
Sinister is a film about finding horrific footage, but it is, thankfully, not another found-footage film. Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a character straight out of a Stephen King novel; he’s a middle-aged crime novelist who fears his most successful book may be behind him. Ellison has a peculiar means of finding inspiration: He moves his family (unknowingly) near a past crime scene and begins investigating, from his home office, for writing material.
At the start of the film, we learn he may have taken this methodology a step too far when the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) grills him for moving into the house where a family was hung. Ellison, who spends his days locked up in his office filled with bulletin boards of yarn, photos, and Post-It notes, doesn’t seem to think there is anything wrong with this new home. Once he comes across a box full of Super 8 films of families being murdered in elaborate ways, that view begins to change however.
Sinister takes its time setting a unique tone through the details of Ellison’s family life, his growing fondness for alcohol, and his reluctant role as a father. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) does a great job of slowly building tension, while giving the house some character. His long takes through the hallways and patient lens gives the horrors some breathing room that other horror directors rarely consider these days.
Hawke brings Ellison to life with a surprising amount of depth. Whether Ellison is in it for the money or social justice is a question he asks himself, alongside the audience. Once the shit hits the fan, Hawke’s yells and traumatic gestures feel authentic and real. He drives this movie, but not without some damn fine company.
Ellison’s entire family is fantastic, but it’s James Ransone’s role as the helpful deputy that gives Sinister some much needed comic relief. His playful innocence gives the film a strange Twin Peaks vibe at times. Also worth mentioning is Vincent D’Onofrio as a bugged-out professor of the occult who guides Ellison in his research. Neither of these characters have a major impact on the story, but it’s the details that Sinister gets right.
At the core of the film is the Super 8 footage paired with one of the most incredible, mood-setting soundtracks since Drive. Notable horror composer Christopher Young’s original electronic compositions alongside tracks from dark ambient artists Aghast and Ulver really goes a long way in setting a strange misplaced sense of a dark nostalgia in these found-footage scenes. It’s rare to find a film these days that makes the occult feel dark and mysterious in the way Rosemary’s Baby and The Blair Witch Project once did. Sinister becomes a bit hoaky in the end, but perhaps that's just part of this style of film’s DNA.
My main problem with Sinister is its jump scares. Maybe it’s just a necessary evil in this day and age in order to get audiences talking, but they are still cheap and lazy. There are a couple brilliant scenes that creatively build tension; these are so much more exciting and interesting than the ones that revolve around a loud sound or abrasive edit. I also wish the film explored the archive footage and investigative scenes a bit more. They have that same great quality of Se7en and 8mm (the good parts) and I wanted more!
Along with V/H/S and Cabin in the Woods, Sinister is a boldly stylized horror film that takes genre conventions and does something new with them. By combining the style of old '70s horror with the pace and intensity of Insidious, Sinister becomes a harrowing ride that slowly builds and gets under your skin until it feels like an alien Chestburster is going to pop out. With such great performances and production, you walk away feeling like you got something more out of it than a couple cheap scares. It's the unique atmosphere that you'll remember, which is something all too rare these days.