Director : Scott Derrickson
Screenplay : Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Ethan Hawke (Ellison Oswalt), Juliet Rylance (Tracy), Michael Hall D’Addario (Trevor), Clare Foley (Ashley), James Ransone (Deputy), Fred Dalton Thompson (Sheriff), Vincent D’Onofrio (Professor Jones), Rob Riley (E.M.T.), Tavis Smiley (Anchor), Janet Zappala (Reporter), Victoria Leigh (Stephanie), Cameron Ocasio (BBQ Boy), Ethan Haberfield (Pool Party Boy), Danielle Kotch (Lawn Work Girl), Blake Mizrahi (Sleepy Time Boy), Nicholas King (Bughuul / Mr. Boogie)
For all of its foreboding, shadowy atmosphere and jump-from-the-dark scare moments, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is at its core the story of a Faustian bargain—and you know those never turn out well. The Faust in this instance is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime writer who hit the top of the bestseller list 10 years earlier with Kentucky Blood, which helped solve a murder case the police couldn’t crack and, in the process, brought him fame and recognition. The ensuing years haven’t been as kind to him, as his last two books were failures and one of them has been held responsible for letting a killer go free. Thus, Ellison is in pure desperation, and his desire to not just reclaim his previous pinnacle of success, but top it, drives him to risk both himself and his family.
Which is exactly what is he doing at the beginning of the film as he and his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), 12-year-old son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), and 9-year-old daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) move into what appears to be a rather unremarkable ranch-style house on a rural road just outside a small, scenic Pennsylvania town. Ellison’s family doesn’t realize that they are moving into the very house that was the scene of the latest unsolved crime he is planning on writing about: The ritualistic hanging of an entire family from a large tree in the backyard, which is actually the first thing we see in the film, captured on silent, grainy 8mm in a disturbing unbroken long take. This recording will play again and again throughout the film, as will other similar (and, in many respects, more gruesome) family slaughters, and it is testament to Derrickson’s understanding of its unsettling nature that it never quite loses its impact.
While moving some boxes up to the attic, Ellison discovers a box marked “Home Movies” already in residence there. The box contains an 8mm projector and five canisters of film, each marked with seemingly innocuous titles like “Pool Party” and “BBQ.” However, when Ellison takes them down to his office and starts watching them, he realizes that he has inexplicably become the possessor of a trove of gruesome snuff films that span several decades in age. After watching the first two (including the one depicting the hanging of the family he’s writing about), he starts to call the police, but then changes his mind, perhaps because he realizes that these films could mark his true breakthrough, providing the kind of sensational material that will assure his next project legendary status—his In Cold Blood, as he puts it. Thus, he Faustian deal is sealed.
Not surprisingly, after deciding to keep the films to himself and pursue the mystery on his own in order to feed his desire for recognition and success, strange things start happening around the house. Trevor begins suffering from night terrors again, the attic is filled with the sounds of creaking footsteps, and someone (or something) keeps turning on the projector in the middle of the night. The fact that Ellison keeps almost all of this to himself night after night even as the obviously supernatural intrusion gets more and more ominous strains credulity on some level, even as we recognize that his ambition—which slowly begins to descend into pure obsession—is driving him to do things most of us would scoff at (of course, it doesn’t explain why he refuses to turn on any lights when creeping through the house at night, although the dictates of the genre do).
As he proved in his breakthrough film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Derrickson is a sharp stylist who knows how to meld dreadful imagery with actual ideas that make his horror films more than just exercises in goose-the-audience manipulation. His sense of what scares us derives from his own fears, and his ability to translate those fears into stick-in-your-gut visceral imagery may very will be his greatest skill (he is also aided and abetted to a great extent by veteran composer Christopher Young’s unsettling music, which merges samples from traditional creepy strings, offbeat instruments like a duduk, distorted old recordings, electronic shrieking, and scraping metal).
It also helps that Derrickson is genuinely interested in his characters as human beings, and the scenes in which Ellison and Tracy fight over his ambitions and what they’re doing to their family have the sting of real familial psychodrama; rather than feeling tacked on, they are organic and central to the horror, providing a real sense of danger and loss. Hawke has a tricky job in portraying Ellison, as he must convey the writer’s bruised ego and potentially self-destructive ambition while not losing audience sympathy, and for the most part he does an excellent job. Hawke’s best moments are actually when he is watching the 8mm films, as Derrickson allows his horrified reactions to stand in for some of the more gruesome imagery, thus keeping Sinister from devolving into a gross-out freak show (the film is actually quite exemplary in suggesting, rather than showing, gore). It certainly has its share of freakiness, and it is debatable whether Derrickson throws in too many cheap scares. However, as a whole Sinister works with unnerving effectiveness, getting under our skin both viscerally and psychologically.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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