Co-written (with C. Robert Cargill) and directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Sinister is an atmospheric and often-terrifying suburban-set haunted house thriller with grounds in a grisly crime mystery, and a twist of paranoia and the supernatural.
A washed up true crime writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has just moved his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two children into a new home to start working on a new novel. He solely possesses the knowledge that the previous occupants died a horrible death in the backyard. Ellison has decided to investigate and utilise this case as the basis for his book, which he hopes will result in another bestseller and repair his reputation.
Not long after moving Ellison finds a box in the attic containing a projector and a series of 8mm films. What he first believes to be innocent home movies turn out to be violent snuff films shot by the killer. Who filmed them? How did they get into the attic? Rattled by these questions Ellison begins to obsess. But when he notices a masked figure watching on in one of the films, strange things begin to go bump in the night. He finds his tough nerves shredded, his sanity suffering and his family threatened.
The ‘struggling writer stumbles across serial murders’ premise is fascinating and the blending of skin-crawling intensity and impeccably timed jump scares (there is one, especially, that made me do just that) show promise, but the film’s direction in the second half is less effective.
It takes a certain character to be able to pore over such horrible subject matter and not be affected by it as a family man. When his children begin to pick up details about the case, his son has serious night terrors, and his wife learns their house’s secret, we question Ellison’s line of work. This makes him not a particularly likable character, but a fascinating one. In the strongest moments, Derrickson’s film has something to say about horror spectatorship. Despite feeling fear and surrendering oneself to scarring stimuli, a horror spectator will simultaneously desire to look away and want to investigate further.
Ellison willingly confronts evil; whether he studies it frame-by-frame on his laptop or goes into the backyard in the middle of the night following a figure sighting. In Hawke’s character there is a resemblance to the protagonists in Blow Up and The Conversation and for a while we aren’t sure whether his experiences with supernatural elements are actually happening or whether the grisly images are having lingering effects.
While some of the suspense techniques – power cuts requiring makeshift light sources, bumps in the attic and figures appearing and just as suddenly disappearing – are familiar, but they work here nonetheless. One especially masterful feature is the score, which is a real conjurer of foreboding. Never again do I want to hear the sounds that accompany the second film Ellison watches.
Not given much to do as the script favors plot over character are Ellison’s children. The film’s misleads aren’t particularly convincing and after a while are all-but forgotten about, while we ultimately learn where the story is going before Hawke’s character does. For a while there we experience everything as he does, and this makes the story unpredictable, but I had put it all together before him, despite a significant feature being left largely unexplained. Over-reliance on ‘gotcha’ scares in the latter half means that many don’t feel as inventive as most preceding.
Sinister is a genuinely scary film that works because of Derrickson’s heart-pounding atmosphere. He grapples familiar tropes with originality, and Hawke’s convincing portrayal of a man driven to recklessness to save his tainted masculinity. Sinister creates interesting parallels between the horrors of reality and the evil that can penetrate not only media recreation, but the personal lives of those who meddle.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22