Written by: Scott Derrikson and C. Robert Cargill
Directed by: Scott Derrikson
Sinister opens with one of the more disturbing visuals in a mainstream horror movie this year. It's grainy, 8mm footage of a family moments before their execution. It holds on the shot for what feels like an eternity, allowing it time to soak it in, These crucial opening moments establishes the stakes right away. As Sinister progresses it builds on that opening moment, calling back to it during the many periods of dread and foreboding in order to create one of the more intense, frightening films of the year. Scott Derrikson has created a horror film for adults, one that preys on very real world fears but also establishes the supernatural without sugarcoating or dumbing it down for the masses.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer renowned for his breakout work Kentucky Blood. A decade after its release, the writer's bright future has dimmed, and he' desperate for another best seller. This desperations leads him to purchasing the home of the subject of his latest book, a family found hung from a tree limb in their backyard with one of their daughters still missing and presumed dead. Making matters worse, he's moved his reluctant wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and young children Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addrio) and Ashley (Clare Foley) without cluing them in on the significance of their new residence. While moving boxes into the attic, Hawke stumbles upon a lone box marked “home movies”. After unpacking his find in his home office, Hawke spools the first of a number of 8mm reels and comes across a startling discovery.
The footage contained on these reels lends Sinister the primary source of its horror. Each one begins with a family enjoying a casual afternoon together before cutting to future event where an unseen assailant murdering the bound and helpless parents and children. The oldest film dates back fifty years making what Oswalt believed to be a simple if horrific unsolved murder case something far more devious and difficult to comprehend. The footage never ceases to unnerve even as it plays out multiple times throughout Sinister. One reveal in particular had me leaping out of my seat it jolted me so bad.
Sinister uses the footage as the jumping off point for its supernatural story concerning a millennium old entity that ties into the dead families and missing children. More importantly, it doles out bits of information at the same pace Hawke's character discovers them, keeping the audience wanting more while depicting the toll these discoveries wreak on the writer. It's not long before Ellison is jumping at every creaking floorboard on bump in the middle of the night. A whiskey tumbler becomes his constant companion, never more than an arm's length away, as the home footage seeps under his skin, leaving him a jangled mess of nerves and sweat blanketed in an oversized cardigan. By the film's climax ordinary sounds (such as the 8mm projector spinning its whees, which admittedly are turning on and off on their own accord by this point) are amplified and twisted in a manner that suggests just how brittle Ellison has become. Credit sound designer Dane Davis along with a soundtrack by Christopher Young for adding this extra element that pushes the film that much further along in its goal to scare the bejesus out of you.
Much of the film's strength comes from Hawke's performance and how he reacts to the strange and increasingly terrifying things going on around him while still forging on with his book. That's where the real world tension comes from, this insistence that he has another great book in him and that his fifteen minutes hasn't expired. This puts him at odds with Tracy who wishes he'd take one of the many teaching or editing jobs offered him so they can stop moving so close to place where horrible tragedies occurred and where they wouldn't be shunned by the locals. There are moments where Hawke sits down to watch old interviews he gave when Kentucky Blood first broke big, and there's such a poignant loneliness to them that you can almost understand why he's going to these lengths. The person on the tape who claimed he wrote for justice rather than fame or money had yet to feel the stinging failure his subsequent works yielded while the man watching his former self can't believe how hard it is to capture the old magic. This leads to ugly interactions with his wife and Foley isn't given much to do except act as the overly critical nagging wife, yet you understand where she's coming from and can't help but agree with her.
Rare moments of genuine humor break the tension without devolving into farce. Once scene in particular Finds Hawke pouring his concerns out to a local deputy he's enlisted to help in his book's research. After an unsettling night, Hawke admits he believes there's something else in the house with his family. The deputy then lays out a very logical case for Hawke's condition: he's under a lot of stress due to his need for a hit book, he's living under the roof where the last crime was committed and the grisly material has gotten him shaken. On top of that there's the constant presence of the whiskey bottle, no judgement of course, but all these things add up to justify his nervous state. Somewhat relieved, Hawke remarks that the deputy must not put stock in supernatural business to which the deputy admits without hesitation that he believes in all of it. It's a genuine funny moment that defuses a lot of the tension that had been built over the previous thirty minutes.
There's not much to find fault with in Sinister. One could make the case that the main villain veers a bit too much on the generic side and the exposition scenes explaining his origin (delivered by Vincent D'Onfronio via Skype no less) feel shoehorned in. It feels like the makers are trying to create an iconic character that can launch a franchise, but “Mr. Boogie”, who looks a bit too much like a Juggalo for my taste, winds up being the least frightening aspect of a very frightening movie.
While Sinister contains a story that will feel familiar to anyone who has watched more than a half dozen horror films, the elements used in unspooling the story make it a fantastic and unnerving experience. You can tell Derrikson and Cargill know what works in horror, and more importantly, what doesn't work. Their efforts result in a magnificent entry to the supernatural cannon and a film that is perfect for this time of year.