Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone
Running time: 110 minutes
Release date: 26 August 2012 (FrightFest)
When it was first announced that Jason Blum of Paranormal Activity and Insidious fame would be producing this year’s hotly hyped horror release, Sinister, there were certain question marks. On one hand the original Paranormal Activity managed to reinvent and breathe life into an old subgenre in the shape of found footage, whilst on the other Insidious created an interesting but ultimately underwhelming dark fantasy flick with genuine glimpses of what could have been. Despite a huge marketing budget, meaning you’d be hard pushed to miss a TV commercial, radio ad or bus with Sinister plastered across it, the expectation was mixed.
The story is familiar enough and will instantly evoke a sense of déjà vu for Stephen King fans. Sinister tells the tried and tested tale of the bestselling author that moves into an unfamiliar house and things go very wrong at an alarmingly quick pace. The difference here, is that bestselling true crime writer, Ellison Osborne (Hawke), is not only entirely aware of the house’s gruesome history but is moving into his new abode because of it. The subject matter of his latest tome revolves around the murder of previous occupants; we are treated to grainy footage of their death in the opening sequence, four family members, bags for masks over their heads and nooses around their necks. The disturbing death sets the tone of unease that plays out for the duration of the film. It is soon revealed, when Ellison stumbles upon a series of reels of Super 8 footage, that there have been similar family murders in other houses, each of which include the appearance of a terrifying demonic figure within the footage. Ellison’s task is to learn why and how they’re connected.
Ellison has a track record of moving into areas within close proximity of murder. His concerned wife, Tracy (Rylance) doesn’t think this is healthy for the family, not least of all their two children, Ashley (Foley) and Trevor (Hall D’Addario). She questions Ellison asking if he’s moved next door to another murder scene. His reply informs her that this is certainly not the case, cue laughter and a private joke between the filmmakers and audience. This type of humour is prevalent throughout the film and comes noticeably to the surface again when Tracy finds out the house’s history. The juxtaposition of comedy and horror enables a brilliant sense of relief against the sheer terror that is ramped up within the more sinister (pun intended) aspects of the film. The most hilarious scenes, by far, feature a Police Deputy (Ransome) who will do anything he can to help Ellison unravel murders origins. The Police Deputy has many great one-liners and is easily the most memorable policeman in horror since Dewey in Scream.
Given the familiarity of the premise Sinister may at first appear tired, underwhelming and a little same-old. And whilst it does bear similarities to The Amityville Horror and every other haunted house possession film we’ve seen for the past thirty years, its strength is in its ability to take these worn-out clichés and produce a fresher, more up-to-date cinematic experience. Sinister’s strongest point is perhaps in its soundtrack by Christopher Young, which says more for Young’s haunting and evocative score than it does the detriment of other aspects of the film. This fits perfectly the nightmarish decline of a writer who delves a little too deeply into his research and bites off more than he can chew – and the revelations bite back! For every scare – of which there are plenty –, reveal, heartfelt encounter and eerie exploration, there is a musical composition which is its equal.
One of the aspects of Sinister which sets it apart from similar films is its interesting and original mythology. Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have created an entirely fictitious demonic entity which doesn’t delve into the tried and tested grounds of Satanism and anti-catholic sentiments. This unfamiliarity makes it harder to deal with and certainly ramps up the fear factor, particularly with the film’s unsettling conclusion. The decision to not take the usual ‘American horror happy ending’ route is one which is brave and should be applauded. Not only does this leave the viewer with chills which transcend merely watching the film, but it adds to the story’s plausibility.
Sinister is a memorable horror film which was amongst the best showcased at FrightFest 13. Whilst it isn’t wholly original it does manage to breathe fresh life into and resuscitate old tropes. This is one to watch in a darkened room with the doors locked and nowhere to run; good luck.
“I almost don’t want to comment on this film as I went in expecting a very ordinary American horror picture and came away having been the most scared I have ever been by a horror film in thirty years, and I’d hate to diminish the effect for anybody else. Sinister’s very first image is exceedingly disturbing and it gets worse from there. Excellent writing, a very good central performance, no false scares, and a music score that makes everything happening on screen even more terrifying – seriously great stuff. People who say this wasn’t scary are either lying or there’s something wrong with them.”
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
“The opening scene, based on one of director Scott Derrickson’s terrifying nightmares, packs a real punch. We see four figures with bags over their heads, slowly suspended and hung from a tree. As they wriggle and jolt a haunting score delivers a thick kick to the gut. Sinister is highly atmospheric and definitely the best creepy cinematic experience since Insidious. It’s full of genuine jumps and scares – can’t wait to watch this one again. Try to catch this one in the cinema if you can.”
“Grim, tense and legitimately frightening. Sinister is the year’s best demon-centric horror flick, riding an all-encompassing wave of unavoidable, impending doom.”