Sinister is a frightening new thriller from the producer of the Paranormal Activity films and the writer-director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Ethan Hawke plays a true crime novelist who discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies that plunge his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.
The found footage craze has had its highs and lows, but little has been introduced as far as originality goes; a movie is culled together from supposedly real footage of some tragedy or disaster into an entertaining if not completely believable film. Producer Jason Blum, who struck found footage gold with the Paranormal Activity series, and his Insidious co-producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones have finally injected a bit of innovation into the subgenre by making the characters in the film be the ones who have found the footage in Sinister.
Sinister stars Ethan Hawke (Gattaca) as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer who has just moved his family to a new town in order to research a murder for his newest book. Unbeknownst to his family, Ellison has moved them into the very house where the murders occurred. While storing some stuff up in the attic of the home, Ellison finds a box containing a projector and a handful of super-8 film canisters. He watches one of the reels and is shocked to find that it is a film of the actual murders, the family who lived in the house that was hung from the tree in the backyard. He watches more of the films and finds that each one contains a heinous killing of a family. While watching one of the reels, he sees a demonic looking face. After digitizing the film and going over each one frame by frame, he finds the face in every one of the reels and learns that there is much more to the brutal films than he realized, and that he and his family are in way over their heads in their new home.
Written and directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Sinister is actually a pretty clever twist on the supernatural horror movie. It's difficult to pin down, but in a good way. The script is focused, engaging and inventive, even though it runs a little long and could benefit from the excision of a few drawn out expositional scenes. Nevertheless, it is still well paced, suspenseful and scary. Ethan Hawke has a field day, as his character of Ellison has to deal with not only the occult aspects of the films, but a family that resents him for moving them to an unfamiliar town and a local police force that doesn't want him there because of the content of his books. There is plenty of conflict in Sinister, and not just resulting from the films. Sinister has several kinds of tension, and all of it makes for an exciting and nerve-racking experience.
Cinematographer Chris Norr (What Doesn't Kill You) makes some interesting choices photographically in Sinister, with mixed results. For the most part, the film has a very naturalistic look to it. This style works well in the super-8 movies that Ellison finds and watches; they appear to look like real home movies, shot with available light and natural camera movement. During the narrative sections of the film that are not found-footage, the style is less effective. Several scenes are heavily backlit by windows, making all but the most obvious of details completely invisible to the audience. In other places, the rooms are so dark and selectively lit that the viewer wishes Ellison would flip on a lamp so they could see something in the scene. The spookier scenes revolving around ghostly apparitions and the demonic figure are the most successfully lit, with the subjects bathed in a blue light that is freaky looking while still showing everything that needs to be shown. These supernatural scenes work well, but the overall look of the picture is amateurish and mediocre, even in the places where it should be slick.
The soundtrack to Sinister is a key element to the suspense and fear that the film generates. The music was composed by experienced horror composer Christopher Young, the man behind the notes for fright films like Drag Me to Hell, Urban Legend and Hellraiser. Young's score for Sinister shows his talent for building tension with both tonal and atonal layering, ranging from soft drones to cacophonous noise. The music goes hand in hand with the sound design provided by Dane A. Davis, a go-to horror sound man who has worked on dozens of movies, such as The Cabin in the Woods, Crawlspace, and several of the new horror reboots including The Hills Have Eyes, House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts. Davis uses typical horror effects like thumps, bumps, squeaks and creaks with surprisingly atypical results, and his use of the diegetic film projector's sound is similar to the theme from Jaws - when the viewer hears it, they know something is going to happen. Between Young's music and Davis' sound, Sinister is a film that makes it very difficult for the audience to relax.
There are two types of fear at work in Sinister. The first is the cheap, surprising shock that is so common in horror movies today. Sinister has lots of the sudden jolts that usually depend just as much on loud sound effects as they do on visuals. The interesting thing about these scares is that they are set up with such suspense and tension that, even though the viewer fully expects them, they are still incredibly effective. The audience knows what's coming but still jumps out of its seat with a scream.
The second type of fright that Sinister utilizes is more uneasy; there's an underlying creepiness in the imagery that permeates the film. This is the type of fear that follows the viewer home, making them look in every bush and in the back seat of every car for the demonic face that Ellison sees in the film. Sinister comes off as a cross between an occult film and a ghost movie with a splash of slasher thrown in for good measure, and all of the ingredients come together to build a pretty frightening experience. The now-you-see-it now-you-don't type of visuals give the film a style that is very eerie and, well, sinister.
October 12, 2012