A good horror movie is hard to find in cinemas today. You can get gory horror flicks that have high body counts, but in doing so you have to sacrifice a good plot. You can get well-rounded characters, but you usually have to give up the blood and gore, which helps make horror films actual horror films. No one seems to be able to find a balance of telling a spooky tale with actual characters worth investing into anymore. Scott Derrickson‘s Sinister is that horror movie that gets everything right. It’s extremely effective in delivering the horror goods, but it’s also a great character film that focuses on a struggling writer just trying to reclaim his fame.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime novelist trying to continue making money writing about grisly murders. He sold one book that lots of people enjoyed, but since then hasn’t had a single hit on his hands. Life is getting a bit depressing for him, because his constant failure pushes him away from his family and into homes with nasty histories that contain murdering and violence.
He’s a good man, but he’s just too focused on reclaiming his five seconds in the spotlight. He takes things a step too far when he moves his family into the home of a recent murder. An entire family was hung from the tree in the backyard, making the piece of real estate a bargain for any family looking for a new place to call home. Ellison buys the land and moves his family in, without telling them a single thing about the house’s history.
He begins investigating a series of bizarre murders that end in all of the family members getting murdered, with one child left missing. While digging around in the attic he stumbles upon a box of found-footage tapes that graphically show the murders. He instantly becomes attached to these tapes as they reveal more and more clues surrounding the murders.
The rest of Sinister is best left for the theaters, because going too far into the plot would only mean ruining some of the film’s scares and surprises.
Sinister works so damn well because of writer C. Robert Cargill and his ability to draw fully-fleshed out individuals, as opposed to the usual horror characters with one or two moments of logic. Ethan Hawke‘s Ellison is sort of a self-centered asshole, but within reason. He loves his family dearly and he constantly reminds them of that, but he also loves the idea of being a successful writer. He battles these two conflicting responsibilities rather uniquely in Sinister. With Cargill and his co-writer (and director) Scott Derrickson we’re given a fully-detailed and thought-out plot that unfolds naturally and without rush.
Ethan Hawke helps hit it home with a performance that is content and logical when needed, but also vulnerable. Hawke helps make Ellison semi-likable, despite everything else leaning towards hating the guy. He moves his damn family into the house of a murder and he continues to make them live there even when creepy things start happening. It takes a moving performance by a capable actor to make this character worth investing time into and Hawke does just that.
My favorite scene in the entire film actually works so well because of Hawke’s performance and Cargill’s writing. It contains not a single drop of blood, but instead our main couple arguing over the reasoning as to why Ellison must stay in the house. Derrickson goes against the horror grain and plops an actual scene of simple dialogue to break up the mood. Hawke and co-star Juliet Rylance‘s characters discuss their relationship and the important balance that Hawke’s Ellison has with his family and his work. It’s an engaging scene that almost makes you forget that you’re even watching a horror movie and yet the film has no problems switching gears quickly after and getting back into shock mode.
The scares in Sinister are simply some of the best and most effective ones I’ve seen in years. I rarely jump during horror films, because I can usually spot most jump-scares from a mile away and because the eventual reveal isn’t nearly as rewarding as the prior buildup, but Sinister is different. It’s a much slower burn of a buildup, but the reveal still packs one hell of a punch. I counted at least three moments that truly terrified me and shocked me unlike any horror movie before it. You could blame a perfectly quiet theater or just the right moment of letting my guard down, but I blame Scott Derrickson and his natural talent at spooking you out of your damn shorts.
He starts the film on a brooding note and he revisits that uncomfortable feeling again and again as Hawke dives into actual found footage.
Sinister‘s literal take on the found footage genre is great, because we’re given all of the benefits of the crippled genre without having to fully commit to the tropes that come with it.
Those dismissing the film as just another R-rated horror flick that tries to force a new icon onto the world are horribly mistaken. Sinister is slightly secretive in disclosing information about its “killer”, but that’s also what makes him all the scarier. He’s such an unknown, making each tiny detail learned that much more frightening. Mr. Boogie isn’t the next Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but he’s memorable enough to be considered for a sequel or two.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining while watching Sinister. I know the two share very little in common, but Hawke’s portrayal of Ellison reminded me so much of Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. While the two films are drastically different, I must say they’re both gems of the genre.
Sinister is full of terrifying images and fully executed scares that will chill you to the bone. It’s a landmark in modern horror and something to be watched in a cold and silent room. C. Robert Cargill completely maps out the script, making Hawke’s Ellison a refreshingly defined character that you’ll actually want to root for. Director Scott Derrickson‘s ability to wring out every last bit of tension from the script and keep things on-edge for 90% of the film is worthy of celebration and only furthering proof that mainstream horror is far from dead and buried.
Between The Cabin in the Woods and Sinister I’d say 2012 is the rebirth of American mainstream horror. Cabin turned the genre upside down and inside out with its clever script and respectful homages, while Sinister reestablishes the roots of horror by scaring you with old-fashioned jumps that are built up properly and never cheated. It also features strong character work that feels almost completely foreign to a genre that spends most of its time killing off characters before giving them names.
Sinister has a few slight fumbles, especially when it wraps up a little too quickly, but the sheer amount of raw horror present makes the imperfections small and minor bumps along a mostly smooth road.
Sinister – 9/10