Sinister (2012)

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nicholas King, Tavis Smiley, Vincent D’Onofrio.

Director: Scott Derrickson
Rating: R (for disturbing violent images and some terror.)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Alliance Films, Automatik Entertainment, Blumhouse Productions, IM Global, Possessed Pictures, and Summit Entertainment.

Written by: C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson

This review was featured at The Rogue Valley Messenger.

(out of 5 stars)

From its startling opening image of a family of four being hanged from a tree, presumably in their own backyard, Sinister portends a desire to not want to play easy and safe with its horror.  Concocting an interesting twist on the “found footage” genre that has been pummeled into muted effectiveness anymore, Sinister is a modern-style horror film that opts for more tension and unsettling images than blood and gore.  For some, Sinister will shake you to your core.  However, once you see the film, and then distance yourself from it, the film is about as effective as a really well-designed haunted house; one that fades from memory soon after experiencing it.

That is not to say that there are not some effective and disquieting moments of terror which director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose) drum up along the way.  Sinister has the content, the style, and the look and feel of being something pretty special for the genre, but a problematic final act and a “twist” that is incredibly easy to figure out makes Sinister slightly better than average at best.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime novelist who has uprooted his wife and two children into a new house, which will provide him the venue and inspiration for the writing of his fourth book, related to the murders depicted at the film’s outset.  Although not entirely candid as to why he insisted on purchasing this particular house, Ellison and family settle in with Ellison vowing that this book will find him a return of fame and fortune he found with his first book a decade before.

Taking some items up to the attic triggers a unique discovery for Ellison.  A box right in the middle of the attic is too inviting to ignore.  Opening it, Ellison finds a Super 8 projector and five 8mm film canisters with titles as innocuous as “Hanging Out”, “Family BBQ”, and “Sleepy Time”.  The films range in years from 1966 to 2011 and curious, Ellison takes them downstairs into his new office. 

After putting the kids to bed, Ellison begins his first night of work and naturally sets up the projector, opting for the film canister entitled “Hanging Out”, which depicts the hangings shown at the beginning of the film.  Ellison takes notes and is attempting to not only determine who the killer is, but to also investigate the family’s missing daughter, not present in the video.  A second canister depicts another heinous crime with another family being murdered, minus a child.  Each video grows more and more vile and shocking, with one commonality in place among all of them – a child survives and is unaccounted for in all of the scenarios.

A curious, starstruck Deputy (a show-stealing James Ransone) begins visiting Ellison and eventually earns Ellison’s trust just enough to become a de facto assistant in Ellison’s investigation.  The sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) finds Ellison despicable and would just as soon see him flee the Pennsylvania community the Oswalts now call home.  And corollary to all of this – the films begin to show a frightening looking individual who Ellison spots on a freeze-frame image in one of the movies he watches.  Then, the man is in the next one.  And the next.  Everything unraveling, Ellison starts to focus exclusively on the discoveries he is making, leaving his family and perhaps his mental faculties further and further behind.

Sinister is going to be unnerving for a lot of folks, especially when those secrets within the footage is revealed.  Director Scott Derrickson frames much of the film in darkened rooms, hallways, and settings, making the things that illuminate the haunted house-type environment even more alarming and disconcerting.  Each movie escalates the violence and the music score featuring industrial-tinged original compositions from Christopher Young and a mix of avant-garde metal from the likes of Ulver and Accurst, among others, amplifies the squirm factor.  Some scenes hang a little too long, in other scenes the inevitable is coming and the waiting is unbearable.  Overall, palpable anxiety looms through much of the film.

After awhile however, Sinister loses steam, though not from a lack of trying.  Ultimately, the truth as to what is happening here is explicitly revealed as a big “twist” or “Ah ha!” moment.  While that reveal may seem novel and terrific to some, I must confess that either through dumb luck or intuitiveness on my part, I figured out the “gotcha!” moment several minutes and scenes earlier.  For me, it simply became very obvious what was happening and thus, the big reveal was powerless, out of sorts with the timbre of the film which preceded it. 

Sinister is a solid film for its initial two-thirds and in those moments, I was compelled and engrossed.  In the final act, the film becomes predictable, overwrought, and focuses on contrived jump scares which render it rather ordinary.  While I never was scared or ever flinched in my seat, Sinister did hook me, with that 8mm footage proving itself haunting and effective.  Plus, when that gothic, rippling metallic score floods and recedes in equal measures, Sinister works and works exceedingly well.

There is enough here to praise – that itchy music bed creating an uncomfortable atmosphere to compliment the darkened set pieces, the unique angle on the “found footage” approach, with Ransone and Ethan Hawke’s performances carrying most if not all of the weight.  Unfortunately, Sinister dwindles fast and had the film run even a few more minutes, heading down the path it was heading, I am not sure Sinister could sustain the modest recommendation I am begrudgingly giving it.

  • There will be interest from horror fans, as we have a creepy new character being introduced to the genre with the film.  Being defined as the “scariest film in years” will add to the mystique also.
  • The premise is intriguing, if not increasingly violent as the film progresses.  Sinister‘s balance of unpredictability, horror elements, and mystery, will perhaps draw more people in.  The fact that the film opts for chills and less gore helps its appeal.
  • James Ransone is brilliant in his supporting turn as Deputy So-and-So (as branded by Ethan Hawke’s character) and if anything, Sinister makes me want Ransone to either 1) lead the inevitable sequel; 2) spinoff and make his own Deputy franchise of films; and/or 3) get more comedic work.  Seriously, he is fantastic here.
  • Built around a “twist”, Sinister foretells where it is going too easily and mutes the shocking moments.  Once that twist is revealed, the film may become too vile and nasty for more those who like the horror more cerebral and psychological.
  • Those who have an adverse reaction to kids in peril, may definitely want to look elsewhere.
  • As exhausting as “found footage” horror movies have become, the cheap jump scare technique overtakes Sinister, especially when the film should be hitting a deeper and more effective gear.  Instead, SInister ends up sinister, in name only.

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