Genre(s): Horror, Mystery
Director(s): Scott Derrickson
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
It’s that time of the year again when scary movies roll into theaters hoping to make an easy dollar just by being out before Halloween. It’s just smart business, really. The problems that result in releasing a film now is people who generally associate this time of the year with mediocre-to-awful horror films, might avoid the lesser known horror flicks and stick with what they know best. With a well-established franchise like the Paranormal Activity series, you at least know what you’re getting yourself into. That’s where Sinister works for me: I had virtually no idea what was going to happen. With some fresh ideas to bring to the table, Scott Derrickson (previously known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the horrendous The Day the Earth Stood Still remake) has crafted a genuinely creepy film that falls into some known horror clichés but never stays in them for too long. It opens strong and ends even stronger, delivering the frights and thrills that a horror movie needs, all the while being bolstered by a strong performance in its leading man, Ethan Hawke.
Admittedly, I don’t watch a lot of horror films. I don’t like the aftereffects that can possibly result from seeing something really creepy, and I also just assume that most are going to be drab because of their tendency to end in the same pitfalls as every other horror film. It’s a genre that feels like a lot of people have given up on trying to do something new. The found-footage idea was fresh once upon a time, but now its been beaten to death. Even then, I never really found the appeal of films like Paranormal Activity, because they just didn’t scare me. So knowing I don’t see many horror films and expect them all to falter like every other one, perhaps the bar was set low for when I went to see Sinister. It’s not an overly original film, but with its lead and some of the unique things it does, I couldn’t help but be strung along.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true crime writer, who is trying to find his next successful book after two flops and one major success. The police don’t like him because he makes their job seem worthless and as if they can’t do their jobs themselves. He acts like a vigilante with a self-imposed sense of justice, believing his work to be extremely important. He and his family move into a new house, refusing to tell them that the house they’ve moved into is actually where a family was murdered. While unpacking everything he soon comes upon a box in the attic, complete with super 8 films and a projector. What he soon realizes is that the family that died then, was not the only family to have been murdered, and he may have stumbled upon a much bigger story than he initially thought. It is a found-footage film in the loosest sense of the term: we are subjected to watching the videos he finds, but the movie really makes use of an extremely eerie tone that that footage presents. The videos begin happy, and then soon become horrifying, especially once you realize who is committing these atrocities. Around halfway through the film it’s revealed that there’s an occult presence in the film, but that’s about as much as I will say. It caught me off-guard in a bad way, but they let it sink in long enough and played it with enough sincerity that I was able to get behind it by the end of the movie.
Part of the reason they were able to sell me on it, though, was because of Ethan Hawke’s performance. It wasn’t incredible, but it was definitely above and beyond what you would expect from a horror film. It just goes to show that having some good talent can heighten a film’s impact, a trend that will hopefully catch on at some point. Casting people who can look scared and scream is not enough anymore. To appeal to a more sophisticated demographic, horror films need to rely more on characters seemingly wrestling with the notion of fear, and we need to be able to see from where we are that they are utterly helpless. Trying to ground as much of the performance in reality is tricky when you’re dealing with the paranormal, but writing a script that doesn’t go too out there helps to prevent losing the audience’s belief. That’s why Sinister works so well for me. The premise stays mysterious to the viewer, then when the big occult themes are revealed, the movie never goes into seances and Ouija boards to help remedy the situation. Instead, you are made to feel that something may be bigger than you, and you have to decide whether or not there’s anything you can do to stop it from happening.
Sinister plays out like a standard horror film on many accounts with its use of musical cues and silence to emphasize the tone of the film, and it also has those moments where you question why Ellison does what he does, including taking his time to survey his surroundings. There’s a scene when it’s dark and he thinks someone’s in the house but when he enters a hallway or a room he takes a long time to look around himself. It plays into the conventional notion of letting the audience know a little more than the main character, just so it can end with a big reveal for the main character that will scare him (and as a result, the audience) senseless. There’s also some questions that the film asks that never really get answered, such as: “How did this box of videos get here?”, or “Who first summoned this occult force?” There are many other questions that can be asked regarding the story, but for every clichés and problem the film has, it also has some very unique moments, and its ending is especially haunting.
Be prepared to not be able to sleep at night because the tone of this movie is chilling, the little videos Ellison finds are unsettling, and the acting is damn convincing. Sinister really is the work of someone who honestly wants to frighten the audience, however that does come at the cost of not wrapping up loose ends, and ultimately falling into some similar clichés of the genre. It’s smartly written at times, and leaves the audience wondering what’s going to happen next. With that being said, there were also similar times when I pieced things together before they were even revealed to the audience, which is obviously never a good thing in a film that is so dependent on the audience not knowing what to expect. However, I’m confident that if you enjoy horror films, this will be right up your alley. For those who don’t want to be up all night because of seeing this movie and the lasting image it will have ingrained into your skull, steer clear of this. But Sinister is more than I expected going into it, and is definitely one of the best horror films released this year.