Directed by Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson
Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario
How long is Sinister? 110 minutes.
What is Sinister rated? R for disturbing violent images and some terror.
Slick, stylish, and easily the spookiest release in ages.
This weekend’s horror offering Sinister opens on an intensely striking multiple murder and from there spirals deeper into the supernatural, the egotistical, the depths of familial horror. The film immediately launches into a grainy shot of four people hanged, burlap sacks over their heads, hands tied, flailing around for what seems like an impossibly long time before finally going still. It’s mesmerizing and horrifying. After starting off with a bang, the movie burrows ever more deeply into its own mythology, taking both the desperate protagonist and the audience with it down the rabbit hole.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke, a prototypical Dad in a sweater, glasses on a chain, and loafers – way to make me feel old) relocates his wife and kids to Chatford, Pennsylvania to research his newest true crime venture. This one, he says, is going to be big. “This could be my In Cold Blood!” he shouts. It’s all very Jack Torrance, only rather than moving his family into the Overlook Hotel, Ellison moves them into the house where those four people were hanged to death in the back yard. He shortly discovers a box full of home movies, reels glibly titled “Pool Party,” “Sleepy Time,” “Barbeque,” and “Family Hanging Out.” Ellison pops them into a projector one by one only to discover the grisliest kind of snuff films – home movies shot by murderers.
The devil is in the details, as they say. Hidden in the background of each slaughter-show is something whose face isn’t human, something that breaks the fourth wall to gaze ominously at the viewer. There’s also a symbol writ large at each crime scene, something vaguely reminiscent of Baphomet. An occult studies professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) tells Ellison matter-of-factly that this is the symbol of Bughuul, an ancient deity pleasantly nicknamed the Eater of Children. Instead of ringing alarm bells, this only spurs Ellison into deeper, more detailed research. Each family is connected to the last somehow, and that tenuous relationship remains just out of reach. Meanwhile, Ellison, who started out the movie occasionally sipping a glass of whiskey with three ice cubes, dives headfirst into the bottle. He falls asleep watching old interview tapes of himself, lamenting the trite lies he spewed. “Which is more valuable to you, Mr. Oswald?” an interviewer asks, “Fame and fortune, or justice?” After a lengthy pause, younger Ellison answers, “It’s the justice.”
The Ellison house becomes a playground for the supernatural. Things literally go bump in the night; twelve-year-old Trevor suffers persistent, progressively more vicious night terrors that contort his body and wreak havoc at school; nine-year-old Ashley paints grotesque imagery on her wall even as she sweetly brings daddy his morning coffee. After one final, horrifying haunting, Ellison burns the tapes and takes his family away in the dead of night. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late.
Sinister has its flaws; it’s all a little too neat, the ghosts too visible. The “twist” ending isn’t, at least for anyone watching carefully. Everything is tied up at the end, packaged with a neat, bloodred bow, and the director can’t resist getting in one last jump scare. If it weren’t for these things – which could have been imposed by the studio for all we know – it would be a nearly perfect horror film. The imagery is shocking and arresting (I am a master compartmentalizer who loves horror movies, and I can’t get it out of my head a day later). The spooky jump moments sent my heart racing; I spent much of the movie with goosebumps, and that almost never happens. (Paranormal Activity, supposedly the scariest of the found footage flicks, did nothing but make me angry.)
Hawke and Juliet Rylance, who plays Ellison’s wife Tracy, put in very smooth performances, their nerves progressively fraying, the chasm between them growing wider as the reality of the situation sets in. Writer-director Scott Derrickson has a knack for timing and imagery; even a seasoned horror aficionado will experience mild heart palpitations this one, but more importantly, there’s a crawling, icy sensation that builds throughout. The screenplay is thoughtful and neat, establishing characters gently and giving the audience just enough information to fill in the blanks about Ellison’s ego, Tracy’s weariness, or Trevor’s bad behavior. Sometimes it’s just a little too on point, though, just a little too efficient. Good horror can be messy and leave questions unanswered. This one doesn’t, and it’s both satisfying and frustrating.
Sinister takes the found footage genre in a different direction; it removes the audience one step by putting the footage in the hands of a flawed protagonist. It plays at the idea of film as transmission method, as window to another dimension, much as The Ring did. It will go down in the annals of familial horror, though it isn’t as memorable (or nearly as gory) as the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. It’s slick, stylish, and easily the spookiest movie I’ve seen in ages. If you value your sleep, you may want to give it a pass; if, like me, you get a rush from the goosebumps, the cold sweats, then by all means, go see it – but be warned, once it’s in your head, you may find it’s trapped in there.