The footage is grainy Super 8. A family of four, mom and dad and the kiddies, stand with hands tied behind their backs and bags over their heads. Nooses tighten ’round their necks; the other end of the rope attaches to the old tree in the back yard. A large limb counterbalances them; when an unseen hand saws it off, the fine folk lift off the ground, struggling against strangulation.
The family had a fifth member, a little girl. She remains missing….
In this media-saturated culture, it’s damnably difficult to produce a game changer, something genuinely fresh in horror. Sinister doesn’t really try, though it brings its own twisted mix to the genre, blending conventional and found footage horror. What it really succeeds in doing…
…is being the best haunted house movie of the 2012 Halloween season. Yes, it’s one of those movies where a family moves into a house with a dark history and creepy stuff starts happening, but it’s also one of those cinematic equivalents of a haunted attraction. It’s suitably scary, boasting both creeping psychological horror and cheap “Boo!” frights, but, once you’ve gotten over the start or the scream, you’re likely to laugh. It has a disturbing premise that can get under your skin, but which becomes ridiculous if you think about it for any length of time.
In short, you could do a whole lot worse than Scott Derickson’s Sinister this Halloween season, and I fully expect it to join the regular television fear-fest rotation. Just don’t expect your life to change, or even your thoughts about the horror genre.
And it features my name. Really. You just have to listen very carefully….
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Directed by Scott Derickson
Written by Scott Derickson and C. Robert Cargill
Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt
Juliet Rylance as Tracy Oswalt
James Ransone as Deputy So-and-So
Michael Hall D’Addario as Trevor Oswalt
Clare Foley as Ashley Oswalt
Fred Dalton Thompson as Sheriff
Victoria Leigh as Stephanie
Vincent D’Onofrio as Professor Jonas
Nicholas King as Bughuul
Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.
An obsessive true-crime writer, his last real success a decade in the past, moves his family to the house where the subjects of his forthcoming book lived—and died. He finds a box of 8mm home movies in the attic. Then creepy stuff starts happening.
Sinister blends the conventional horror story with the “found” footage genre; it’s a story about a man who moves into a house where he finds frightening footage and obsesses over it, voyeuristically, who cannot turn away no matter how disturbing the images become. In short, he’s not unlike the audience of a horror movie.
And that footage is disturbing, and grows more so with each reviewing, and especially when he finds the extended cuts
The rest of the film takes place almost entirely in an ordinary house, a dwelling of the sort you might be sitting in right now. Sinister makes brilliant uses of light, shadow, sound, and perception, so that, as Oswalt searches the corners of his found footage for every new clue and hidden fright, so do our eyes dart over the screen, wondering what may be happening in the dark corners.
As the film progresses, Oswalt’s reality starts in subtle ways to resemble the found footage, with quick jump cuts and odd focus. Sinister features great horror-movie direction.
The film tries to make sense of the protagonist’s stupid, destructive behavior, He’s obsessive, he’s an egoist, he’s drinking heavily. Fine. I’ll even accept why he cancels a call to the police that any sane person would have made. But Sinister pushes the trope too far. Oswalt investigates spooky noises at night without bothering to turn on the lights. The best-selling crime writer fails to recognize connections that intelligent audience members see immediately. He finally realizes that something stalks his family, possibly something supernatural and, when he thinks he sees it in his yard, he wanders out armed with a bat. Without telling anyone what he’s doing. And he leaves the door open.
He’s not the only character prone to outbreaks of plot-enabling imbecility. How does his wife not realize that they’re living in the murder house? And how has the connection identified by the deputy (and deduced earlier by half the audience) gone unnoticed by crime investigators for decades, especially in an era when the details of these murders can be found online?
Originality: 3/6 Most notable influences include The Shining and Ringu. Sinister also recalls the first season of American Horror Story, though it must have been in production at the same time, and it has a better-realized premise.
Production: 6/6 The film has excellent production. Of particular note: its score and general use of sound, which deserve some kind of Oscar nod.
Story: 4/6 This film has the most intriguing horror-movie backstory/mythology since Ringu. Yes, most viewers will accurately predict the conclusion and the identity of the final killer long before the film reveals them. These facts may bar Sinister from being a true horror masterpiece in the eyes of many, but at least the story plays fair with its evidence and right by its premise.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Overall: 5/6. Sinister has franchise written all over it, which is too bad. I see no way each subsequent movie won’t simply cheapen the value of the first, become a means to sell theatre tickets to bored teens and monster masks to little kids. Then again, most people don’t consider haunted houses and cornfield mazes high art. This is a spook show, a roadside attraction for the brave to shiver through on Halloween.
Would Scott Derickson agree? Consider the final image before the credits roll, and tell me.
In total, Sinister receives 32/42.
This year’s Halloween Countdown
I admit it’s very unlikely Scott Derickson read my somewhat negative review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and, in the unlikely event he did, that he cared then or recalls it now. Still, I startled just a bit when they read the list of the past murdered families. “DeLuzio” isn’t that common a last name….