Written by: Scott Derrickson (screenplay), C. Robert Cargill
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance and James Ransone
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Once you see him, nothing can save you.
In an era where found footage is running rampant, Sinister throws a little wrinkle into the formula: itís about a guy who actually finds the damn footage. I guess this means weíve jumped back to The Ring as a reference point, but Sinister isnít just a knock off of that; no, itís a knock-off of plenty of other stuff too since itís the umpteenth movie where a family has moved into the wrong house where the previous tenants were murdered. However, thereís even some wrinkles here, which is true of the film as a whole. It may feel overly familiar at times, but Sinister is well-crafted with just enough tics and an intriguing mythology to warrant its place in its various genres.
In this case, the family in question havenít just unwittingly moved into a previously blood-soaked house. The Oswalts half-ass know what theyíre getting into since patriarch Ellison (Ethan Hawke) writes true-crime novels that specifically focus on unsolved murders and disappearances. His latest case has brought him to a small town in Pennsylvania, where a family (save for one of the children, who disappeared) was hung to death on a tree in their backyard. Ellison doesnít completely divulge the truth that theyíve moved into the exact house, which seems like an increasingly bad idea since he starts to discover footage not only of the grisly murder scene heís investigating, but also bizarre cases that stretch all the way back into the 60s.
Oh, and the house might be haunted by a demonic spirit thatís providing this mysterious footage. This guyís a true auteur too and doesnít come without a dry writ; for example, the eerie footage of the family being hanged is labeled ďFamily Hanging Out,Ē and the other reels are titled accordingly. The film proceeds as a mystery centered around this footage, which presents a few compelling quandaries that must be unraveled during the intermittent scenes that donít feature Ellison scouring the footage for clues. At the center is a mysterious figure that keeps popping up; resembling a lost member of Slipknot, this long-haired, masked baddie somehow recurs in each film, and Ellison practically plays Whereís Waldo? with this boogeyman before he discovers the horrifying truth (which was unfortunately spoiled by the trailers, something that plagues Sinister throughout).
Sinister is two-pronged in its horror since it splits time between the found footage and the subsequent haunted house stuff that begins to occur when it becomes clear that these are no ordinary murder cases. The latter events are typical bump-in-the-night scares that find Ellison investigating strange noises out on the lawn and in the attic, where a parade of jolts lie in wait, ready to spring and send audience members leaping out of their chairs. Some of them really work, as director Scott Derrickson at least knows the mechanics of pacing individual sequences (though the film as a whole is a bit formless and sometimes without a sense of escalation--basically, weird shit happens until the credits roll). As is typically the case with these types of films, though, the more subtle moments are truly effective and skin-crawling; sometimes, the bad guy lingers in the background of the frame, waiting to be discovered as Ellison pores over his footage (if you can simply make scanning, clicking, and zooming over pictures into a suspenseful proposition, youíve certainly succeeded as something).
Somewhat ironically enough, though, it is the found footage that steals the show. Each tape almost feels like an extended slasher death sequence, as the murderer conjures up all sort of elaborate homicides for his victims; interestingly enough, these scenes arenít extremely graphic, but they certainly feel violent. What they lack for explicit gore, they make up for with a faux snuff quality; instead of unfolding with the alluring nightmare logic of The Ring tape, they instead feel more inspired by the home video tapes found in Michael Mannís Manhunter. An unsettling sense of voyeurism sets in as we watch these families engage in normal activity before the jarring smash cuts slam right into their untimely demise, and these sequences also feel like they could exist as short films, as each one carries a different score from Christopher Young. While his soundtrack occasionally slips into that generic, industrial scraping thatís scored horror films recently, the found footage is accompanied by haunting, almost ethereal tones that compliment the eerie visuals.
Thereís an interesting sort of interplay at work here that comes with this territory; typically, in cases like New Nightmare and The Ring, evil is captured on celluloid to contain it, but this flips the script a bit by having the Boogey Man spreading like a contagion to anyone who sees him--letís just hope this motherfucker doesnít go viral (thereís your Sinister 2 pitch right there). Little wrinkles like that make Sinister just unique enough to justify its existence; itís okay to crib from multiple sources as long as thereís just enough awareness of it, and Sinister has a lot obvious conventions that are given a fresh coat of paint. Even the requisite fake scares involving animals are great and subtly incorporated into the mythology (which is delivered by Vincent D'Onofrio via a Skype session). Derrickson and Cargill also conjure up a compelling reason for the family to stick around, at least initially: as it turns out, Ellisonís last hit was over a decade ago, and heís been obsessed with chasing that fame and glory ever since; he claims he needs one last hit to provide for his family, but he frequently falls asleep watching his old interviews from his successful run on the press circuit.
Unfortunately, this also doesnít quite reflect well on him; in a movie like this, I think the leads need to be moderately affable, but Ellison is a tough sell in that regards. While he doesnít descend into being a pure, unlikable prick, even George Lutz would probably think this guyís a little off when it comes to being a patriarch since he doesnít immediately get the hell out of dodge even when everything has been laid out. Tapping Ethan Hawke for the role ends up being a boon because he at least brings a natural charm and charisma that keeps Ellison from being a complete deal-breaker. Heís well-matched with Juliet Rylance, who is (naturally) the reasonable spouse and mother who thought it was a bad idea to move there in the first place, and the two kids are likewise well-performed by Clare Foley and Michael Hall DíAddario. Levity is provided by James Ransoneís unnamed deputy, the star-struck local oddball on the force who ends up helping Ellison with the investigation, so the film doesnít descend completely into nihilistic grim and grittiness.
Haunted house movies generally donít work all that well unless the inhabitants are mildly compelling, and Sinister gets that much, even if it becomes more of a standard spook show as it winds down to its inevitable conclusion. As a pure chair-jumper, it's right up there with the best recent offerings, especially right in the moment; Derrickson knows how to put effective horror scenes on screen. Itís difficult to say the film truly lingers beyond the loud noises and unpleasant imagery, which is okay; plus, while itís fun to enjoy with a crowd, something tells me itíll really take hold during an eventual revisit at home. After round one, I can sufficiently say Sinister is enjoyable, well-made, and a little long considering how threadbare the material is; it compensates well enough with its atmosphere and panache, but it only gets just under your skin without making it crawl all the way to the back of the auditorium. Buy it!
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