Sinister is a film that does something unspeakably shocking: it’s literally, honestly frightening as hell. And that’s a good thing.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD, HORRIFIC SPOILERS!
True crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is working on a new book about a murdered family and their missing daughter. Ellison, however, hasn’t told his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) or their children Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) that the new home they moved into belonged to the murdered family only months before. Almost immediately upon moving in, Ellison finds a box of Super 8 home movies covering a range between 1966 and 2011. Each one shows a family being murdered in increasingly gruesome ways, as well as a mysterious, demonic presence lurking in the background. As Ellison investigates the films further, he and his family are increasingly plagued by strange occurrences, and he realizes that the demonic entity may be targeting his family next.
Director Scott Derrickson‘s first theatrical feature, the much better than it had any right to be The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, found its strength in anchoring a supernatural story in a very realistic, tactile setting. It’s probably no surprise then that his follow-up, the thoroughly unnecessary and inessential remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, failed to connect in part due to its completely fantastical canvas. Derrickson returns to what he does best with Sinister, placing a slow-burning horror story in an unquestionably realistic setting, and eventually making one of the most genuinely frightening traditional horror films in a good long while.
A subject left under the light too long will burn.
Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill have created a tight, claustrophobic film reminiscent of both classic grindhouse cinema in its wickedly efficient staging and classic horror in its Lovecraftian antagonist and trajectory. 95% of the film takes place inside Ellison’s home, a structure we see every corner of but never get a good sense of layout or design. Ellison seems to make his way through an unending series of maze-like tunnels and trapdoors, only occasionally venturing into the outside world, and aside from visits from the local sheriff (Fred Thompson) and his star-struck deputy (James Ransone), there is almost nobody from the outside seen interacting with the family.
The microcosmic nature of the setting seems to place almost the entirety of the story inside Ellison’s head, and there are a number of times where it seems like the film could actually be one of Ellison’s novels re-enacted for the screen. It serves to truly bond the audience with the main character, since we seem to be privy to what we believe to be his innermost thoughts. It also serves to ratchet up the tension to heart-pounding levels by making the story feel trapped from the start. Like classic home-invasion horror films like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, one of the most frightening aspects of the film is the idea that the one place in our lives that should be safe and sacred is no more inviolable than anywhere else. Nowhere, and consequently nobody, is safe.
And that baseball bat isn’t going to help.
Since the film dwells so much on Ellison, casting the wrong actor in the role would have made the film a complete disaster. Luckily, there’s Ethan Hawke. Looking decidedly unglamorous, Hawke fully commits himself to a role that relies a great deal on non-verbal cues. At least half of Ellison’s scenes involve no other actors, but Hawke’s organic performance seems to make the house itself a co-star to bounce energy off of. His interactions with Juliet Rylance are imminently believable, from their flirtatious bedroom talk to an explosive fight when Tracy finds out about the house’s history. Ellison’s research and experiences are slowly driving him to the edge, and he seems to be taking his entire family with him.
With such a small cast, chemistry is key, and everybody fits into place remarkably well. Rylance is effectively natural, and even when she unleashes herself on Hawke, she seems properly restrained. She never goes melodramatic or overly emotional. Both Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley act like kids ages 12 and 10, never too precocious or too childish. Fred Thompson, in a glorified cameo, pretty much plays every role he’s ever done, from District Attorney Cornpone on Law & Order to failed Republican presidential nominee, but that’s perfect for the part. His main duty is to act as what amounts to a mouthpiece for Ellison’s new hometown, who wants nothing to do with him or the sensationalistic chaos he brings. In contrast, James Ransone’s deceptively simple deputy is completely in awe of Ellison’s work, and even when he begins to act as Ellison’s secret source for police material, remains decidedly torn between his loyalty to the town and his concern for Ellison’s mental state.
I’m not okay; you’re really not okay.
In many ways, the film is reminiscent of the classic H. P. Lovecraft story “The Rats in the Walls.” Like that story, this is set almost entirely in one location where a residual evil that cannot be quantified by human logic begins to slowly poison both the setting and the protagonist’s mind. The demonic entity in the films has in reality very little screen time, but from the moment Ellison first sees its picture, its presence is almost constantly felt. It almost seems to seep through the pores of the film itself in an uncomfortably metatextual way. The audience never gets a good, clear view of the demon’s face, making it that much more frightening. Its easy to see how Ellison’s mind begins to unravel, and Ellison looks more and more haggard as the film goes on.
A key part of the film’s effectiveness is its brilliant use of music and sound. There are the standard jump scares that have become requisite for modern horror, but they’re used with remarkable proficiency. However, the most chilling aspect is the music, a mixture of Christopher Young‘s original score and a collection of dark, ambient industrial tracks. Screeching metal, hellish choirs, the buzzing of mechanical insects, corrupted throat singing and a low hum whose frequency actually seems to cause pressure on the ears and head are only a few of the elements mixed into the film’s sound bed. “Gyroscope” by Boards of Canada reoccurs several times with its rolling, precise drums that sound like the moving sprockets of a film. Most disconcerting are moments when undecipherable voices whisper in a language too alien to be of human origin, masterfully garbled, distorted and panned in Young’s consuming stereo field.
Looking for trouble.
Sinister, like the recent found-footage horror film V/H/S, seems to punish humanity’s tendency toward voyeurism and morbidity. Ellison’s lurid novels have gained him an infamous reputation, but continue to be bestsellers. Ellison finds himself repulsed and sickened by the films he finds, but he can’t stop himself from studying, re-watching and analyzing them. At the same time, it feels as if the horrors lurking in the Super 8 reels want to be found, similar to the cursed videotape in The Ring. When Ellison finds the box of film, it’s sitting completely by itself in an otherwise empty attic in a faceless black box reminiscent of the ominous monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that it’s guarded by a rather large scorpion doesn’t seem to deter Ellison’s curiosity in the least even when all logic would dictate otherwise.
Sinister completely lives up to its name, starting off relatively quietly and then slowly, inexorably tightening its grip. The demon is an entity unto itself but also acts as a mirror and manifestation of our own morbid curiosity, making Ellison (and by extension the audience) both complicit in and victim to the events in the film. What’s seen cannot be unseen, no matter how hard we try, and sometimes the things we see can drive us to the edge of reason and sanity. Likewise, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to forget some of the images here, and that’s entirely the point. Terrifying without being graphic and hypnotic in its encroaching dread, it’s destined to be a classic.
Rating: 9 out of 10 / A
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and saw what you did there, you monster.