When true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family move into the home of a murdered family, he finds a box of super-8 films that revel the tragic circumstances of the family . . .and others who have been murdered before.
I have seen a lot of movies and I have seen a lot of horror films, in particular. Very few of those horror films have scared me. From horror comedies (Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein) to torture porn (Saw, Hostel) to films about snuff movies (8MM) to slasher films (Halloween, Friday the 13th), I’ve seen more than my share. Only two horror films had ever scared me. Sinister is number three. As I walked out of the theater, I could not get the film out of my head. While it didn’t particularly shock me or jump-scare me, it did hit a deep emotional recess that terrified me to the core. As I sit and write this review of the film, I am still a little frightened. Even during the daylight hours, I find the film still has a firm grasp on my consciousness. I can give no higher praise to a horror film. It scared the bejeezus out of me.
Ellison Oswalt and his family move into the home of a murdered family so that Oswalt can work on his newest true crime novel about the family. His wife has no idea that they are living in the murdered families old home. As they are unpacking, Oswalt takes boxes to the attic where he discovers a box full of old super-8 films and a projector. As he begins research on his book, he turns on the projector and discovers that the films are the deaths of families dating from the ’60’s. Whoever killed the family in the house where he now resides has filmed multiple murders and left them for Oswalt to discover. As he digs deeper into the films and police reports, his sanity begins unraveling and his family begins to suffer for his book. Soon, weird events begin happening in the house. Strange noises in the attic. Creaking floorboards. The super-8 projector turning on by itself. Is his mind stressing out or is there more than there seems?
Directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno), Sinister is a truly terrifying film and is sure to be the masterpiece of his career. This is a film sure to divide audiences who are expecting a horror film in the modern vein of the Saw or Paranormal Activity franchises. What it does so brilliantly, though, is borrow from those franchises to create a whole new monster. The torture porn genre has been played out. The found footage genre has been played out. What Derrickson does is borrow elements of those films to create something fresh and terrifying, something that resonated with me in a way the others didn’t. He crafted a film that truly frightened me.
What works so well is having the strength of an actor like Ethan Hawke in the film. He is convincing as the character of Ellison Oswalt. He is a man who published a hit book 10 years ago and has been struggling to have another. His subsequent books have failed to catch on like his first, and he is concerned about his family and his career. He is a selfish character, though. He wants this book so bad that he will put himself and his family in harms way to get what he wants. When he should flee the house, he fights to stay there; with his family in tow. He resorts to drinking to deal with the things he is seeing in the films, which doesn’t help his mindset. He is trying to write a book, research said book, deal with his son who has terrible night terrors, keep his wife happy and not let her know what happened in the house (the backyard, to be precise), and deal with his daughter who just wants to go back to their old home. He is obsessed and terribly stressed. And that makes him dangerous. Not to the point where he would harm anyone, but to the point where his judgement is lacking. His selfishness is also at odds with his families safety. He is more concerned with writing a hit book than with his and his families safety.
He comes across as a real person. He is just an everyday man trying to make ends meet and to do what he loves in life. The things he sees in these films, though, darken him. And instead of calling the police when he watches the films, he keeps them to himself. All in the hopes of having one more hit book and going on the talk show circuit or having a movie made from his book. When all is said and done, it is not the evil of the films or the spirits, but his own selfishness and obsessions that finally puts his family in life or death jeopardy. In short, Ellison is comes across as a real man, someone with flaws and ambitions. Someone who’s ambition gets in the way of his common sense. And the circumstances that evolve in the film lead to an all too deadly game.
There are moments where he does the exact opposite thing a rational person thinks they should do. When he hears a noise in the attic in the dead of night, he investigates. Who would do that, you might think. But have you ever found yourself in that position? I have. And I discovered that I went to investigate, to make sure everything was safe for my family. While some may think that it is asinine to investigate a noise in the dead of night, you have to. While watching the film, you have the benefit of knowing it is a horror film. From the characters point of view, it is real life. He does not know he’s in a horror film. He’s just a man who has a family to protect, frightened as he may be, he has to do it. When he goes out in the dark of night to investigate, he is terrified. But he has to do it. And it is good that he does. It adds realism to the character, but audiences seem to think it is stupidity. It is not. It is realism.
Clearly, I loved Sinister. While I am not so sure how it will hold up on multiple viewings, I found that my initial viewing of the film terrified me. I can give no higher praise to a horror film than that. If you are a horror movie fan, and not just looking for a gore movie, then I highly recommend Sinister. It is not particularly gory, and I did call the ending way in advance, but it frightened me. Derrickson managed to build the tension to amazing heights during the film and it worked on me. The combination of a fresh horror story, a great actor, and competent direction created a horror film that doesn’t re-invent the genre, but certainly stands on its own.
*** out of ****