Directed by Scott Derrickson
Distributed by Summit Entertainment
“But give me beasts and wild imaginings, and I’ll forgive any number of zips up the back and holes in the motivation. Come a little toward me with a genuine desire to scare, and I’ll more than meet you halfway.” –Clive Barker
There is so much that Scott Derrickson’s new film Sinister gets right. The director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose has crafted a good-looking, well-acted exercise in suspense that relies more on suggestion and mood than gore or bloodshed (but isn’t afraid to get grisly when it needs to). It has an iconic looking villain, a cast driven by adults, and a story that’s given weight by its lead character’s battle with his all-too-human flaws amidst the scary goings-on. Unfortunately, for all the film does well, it is hamstrung by some cheap jump scares, unbelievable character choices, and a last act revelation that can be seen from miles away.
True crime author Ellison Oswalt (a very good Hawke) is in need of a hit. Once lauded for his successful tome Kentucky Blood, Ellison has been searching for another gripping real-life tragedy to exploit in the wake of the failure of his last two books. Finding the inspiration he needs with the murder of an entire family in a small Pennsylvania town, Ellison uproots and moves his own brood into the home of the deceased in order to write a case study on the crime (while failing to tell his wife of the house’s morbid history – the family was hung from a large tree in their backyard). While rooting around in the attic, our hero stumbles upon a box of Super 8 films, each of them featuring the murder of a different family. Rather than turning this evidence over to the police, Ellison pursues an investigation that leads him afoul of a pagan deity named Bughuul (aka The Eater of Children, aka Mr. Boogie), all while his children begin exhibiting strange behavior and his marriage begins to crumble. Things gets pretty dark from there on out.
Working from a screenplay by himself and C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson knows just how to tighten the screws on his hero (and his audience) to inflict the maximum amount of psychological damage. Each time the Super 8 projector starts up (the various home movie murders are doled out throughout the film), one can’t help but grip the chair arm or break into a sweat. While some of the scares in the film are little more than hokey “gotchas!”, other moments are so perfectly crafted and genuinely disturbing that they will likely stick with you long after the film has ended. In addition, the film’s constant darkness is utterly oppressive. Not merely the darkness in the story (of which there’s plenty), but the darkness in every single frame of this film. Shadows and blackness encroach in every scene. Even the daylight sequences are grim. The sun never seems to shine in Sinister’s world, which keeps things more than a little unnerving throughout.
Credit for the film’s success must not only go to the director and screenplay, but also to the cast. Making a return visit to our favorite genre is Ethan Hawke (catch the flawed but fun horror-actioner Daybreakers if you haven’t already), giving a fantastic performance as Ellison. For all of his character’s questionable choices (more on those in a tick), Hawke does his best to make those moments fully human and believable and does a damn fine job of (nearly) succeeding. It’s a testament to the actor’s abilities that he’s able to make an occasionally arrogant, at times morally questionable character so damned likable. We may not agree with what he’s doing, or completely understand why he’s doing it, but we always care about the character.
Also fantastic is Juliet Rylance as Ellison’s wife, Tracy, who has what should be the thankless role of “nagging, misunderstanding wife” in a film like this. Thanks to the writing, direction, and her performance, the character comes off as a three-dimensional person and one the audience can’t help but side with during the film’s best scene – a long overdue argument between the spouses. Rylance more than holds her own with Hawke during this scene and should be applauded for it.
The rest of the cast is filled out with solid supporting players, including: Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley as Ellison’s neglected, terrified children; character actor and former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson as a no-nonsense Sheriff; James Ransone as the intermittently smart and Barney Fife-ish Deputy; and Vincent D’Onofrio as Professor Jonas, giving a performance that breathes life into what should’ve been a purely expository character.
Sinister, when it works, also does so due to D.P. Chris Norr’s beautiful, darkness-drenched photography. It must’ve taken some amount of courage to paint the film as black as it is, but the film is all the better and scarier for it. Scary, too, is composer Christopher Young’s frightening musical score. Young’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II album is among my favorite movie soundtracks, and he doesn’t disappoint here with his surprisingly spare yet effective work.
All sounds pretty great so far, right? Well…as much as I adore what the film accomplishes (which is considerable), I cannot help but note its missteps, the biggest, of course, being the massive leap that we, the audience, are asked to take in accepting the various choices Ellison makes throughout the film. One assumes that Derrickson is certainly aware of the criticism. From his Twitter feed, these two recent posts:
Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson)
2/16/13, 2:45 AM
Watching JAWS. If this came out today a gazillion film bloggers would say “It’s good until Quint stupidly burned out the ship’s engine.”
Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson)
2/16/13, 2:47 AM
The Internet is pressuring screenwriters to take the truthful irrationality out of human behavior in films.
He has a point. There have been innumerable instances in the past few years where I’ve noticed critics taking a movie to task for something stupid a character might have done (not allowing for the possibility that the character was meant to be, y’know, stupid, if only for a moment). Thing is, though – that rationalization doesn’t work in Sinister’s defense. It’s easy enough to buy Ellison moving his family into a murder house. It’s understandable that he chooses his career over the option of turning evidence over the police. But to ignore the strange happenings that envelop his new home? To look past the sight of ghostly hands pushing him down through the attic floor during a spectral attack sequence? To discover the existence of a likely supernatural killer, and then see said killer on the grounds of his home… and continue to keep himself and his family in harm’s way? Credulity isn’t merely stretched here; it’s snapped in two.
All this on top of a twist that is telegraphed by the end of the second act. I won’t ruin the film’s ending. Rather, I’ll leave it to the first hour of the film to do that for you. Suffice it to say, though, that the climax’s haunting reveal is watered down by its inevitability.
…and the less said about the strange, unintentionally humorous Carnival of Brats sequence that arrives at the film’s midpoint, the better.
While I’d normally not give a movie with these types of glaring issues a second thought, Sinister stays with me for a few important reasons. The acting and filmmaking, as mentioned. The story is certainly interesting enough, mixing typical haunted house and supernatural killer tropes with the found footage subgenre. The villain is strong enough to make an impression and warrant sequels.
But more so than all of that? The movie is scary, dammit. It takes a lot to shake this viewer, and I admit to being a white-knuckled mess throughout my viewing of this film. There are many who might lob some insults my way for admitting as much, but I do so gladly. It’s rare that I find myself genuinely horrified during “horror” movies these days, and I’m thrilled when it does happen. Mr. Boogie and his home movies ruined my evening, haunted my dreams, and cost me sleep the night I saw Sinister, and for that I thank Mr. Derrickson and company. Sadly, it’s not easy these days to find films more concerned with atmosphere and crafting a good chill than mere tumult and CG-riddled nonsense. By making a back-to-the-basics horror flick with a modern twist, the filmmakers have earned my respect for their effort, flaws be damned.
Speaking of effort – a satisfying amount has gone into bringing Sinister to disc. Summit’s Blu-ray boasts a fantastic picture, with sharp detail and accurate colors throughout (as well as mostly inky blacks throughout the bulk of this constantly dark film). In addition, the DTS 7.1 track is sterling, full of spooky tricks and unsettling effects throughout. Kill the lights and crank the sound when you watch this film, and it’ll be more than easy to imagine yourself trailing alongside Hawke as he journeys throughout this terrifying tale.
Also noteworthy is the disc’s selection of bonus features. We get two audio commentaries: one a more technical minded talk with director Derrickson; the other a writers’ commentary with Derrickson and Cargill. Both are must-listens for anyone interested in screenwriting, filmmaking, or horror films in general. There are also two decent featurettes. The first, True Crime Authors, gives a good overview of the true crime genre and the obsession some of these writers must have in order to pursue the types of tales they write about. Funnily enough, but this featurette goes some way toward justifying some of Ellison’s actions in the film, more so than the film itself manages. The second, Living in a House of Death, takes a look at the Villisca Ax Murder House, the site of a chilling murder of an entire family that could easily have been featured in Sinister.
Next is a set of deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Derrickson and Cargill, which features a character deleted entirely from the film: a next-door neighbor that gives Ellison a bit of background on the family that lived and died in his house. While the scenes ultimately prove to be superfluous to the film’s plot, they feature a superb performance by May’s Angela Bettis and make one wish that Derrickson had left the scenes in place simply to preserve her work. Last up for the bonus features is the film’s theatrical trailer (always appreciated, guys).
Ultimately, while I cannot dismiss the film’s flaws, I can forgive them. I forgive its “zips up the back” and its holes in the motivation. Because its desire to scare is genuine, I’ve decided to meet Sinister halfway. I hope you will, too. If you haven’t already, give Sinister a look. And if you’ve already seen the film – do yourself a favor and check it out on disc, if only for the bonus features.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5