Film Review – Sinister

Sinister poster

Scott Derrickson’s 2012 horror reviewed by Ren Zelen…

It’s never a good idea to watch snuff movies, as anyone of a benign disposition will tell you, and not an activity likely to improve your mental health. For Ethan Hawke’s protagonist, Ellison Oswalt, this unsavoury occupation proves to be increasingly ‘sinister’ and dangerous, and he gets more than he bargains for while researching his new book. He is a writer of ‘True Crime’ stories, desperate to repeat former glory after his books of fiction have flopped. He persistently probes an unsolved crime involving multiple murders in a family and finds several similar cases that appear to be linked.

Ruthlessly pursuing his aim, he uproots his family to a small town where the last of the mysterious murders have taken place, placing them in the exact house where a family was slaughtered. He calculatedly omits to tell his supportive wife (Juliet Rylance) this small, but pertinent detail about their new home and the selfish nature of his motives. Unusually for this kind of horror, this puts him firmly in the category of misguided Anti-hero, establishing a reason for us expect his duplicity to get some form of retribution. It’s a tribute to Ethan Hawke’s moody yet stirring performance that we retain some sympathy for his increasingly confused and benighted character.

While the movie lacks ambition and fumbles several chances to tell a much fuller story, it does use classic scare tactics to make a reasonably satisfyingly supernatural thriller (although would it really be too much to expect these characters to have the initiative to turn on some lights occasionally?) Director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and co-writer (Ain’t It Cool News contributor) C. Robert Cargill strip down the horror frills (and thrills) to rely on pure atmosphere, making up for uneven dialogue and pacing by some grim imagery, starting with the first shot – a grainy Super-8 film of a family hanging from a tree – the first of several increasingly gruesome death scenes. This opening shot sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Every time the movie loses pace, Derrickson injects a scare, the most shocking of which involve Trevor, Ellison’s twelve-year-old son, whose somnambulistic tendencies and night terrors find him popping up odd places. Unfortunately, the rather unsubtle and clichéd soundtrack tends to telegraph the oncoming frights well before they arrive.

“Sinister” doesn’t break any rules, but excels at following the spookiest of them. It utilizes the found footage film device, which is fast becoming old hat, but at least inserts it into a drama of obsession and disintegrating family strife, where we discover what might happen to the character who actually finds the footage. It implies the sobering question: when we go hunting for evil, how many of us really think about what might happen if we actually find it?

The aspect of the movie that most intrigued me was the notion of the power inherent in the ‘images’ themselves. We are all familiar with the feeling that once an image has entered ones’ mind, it exerts an influence that is not easily dismissed (thus the refusal of the snuff-movies in ‘Sinister’ to physically ‘disappear’). As a child, whenever I’d been reading a scary story or watching a scary DVD I would refuse to have the book or DVD remain in the room with me after lights out, as if I imagined that the object itself contained some kind of malignant power. The idea of visual images having an inherent autonomy or evil intent has been explored in other horror movies, such as the Japanese ‘Ringu’ cycle or Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’, and we can all recall certain shocking movie scenes we may have seen many years ago. In ‘Sinister’ as in these other movies, it seems that it is celluloid itself which forms the ghostly presence, and its’ intent is to haunt us, mercilessly.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2013 All rights reserved.

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