By Bret Dorman
Last year we saw the release of Inisidious, a great horror flick that managed to tell a classic ghost tale and go to some pretty unconventional places. Sinister shares the same sort of single worded title that the writers were probably pleased to find hasn’t been used yet while browsing “Pure Evil” in the thesaurus. It also deals with ghosts and spirits, tending to stick to a confined location and deals with one family. But unlike Insidious, Sinister doesn’t take many chances. This isn’t a complaint or (negative) criticism. Sinister respects the tried and true formula designed to scare the living crap out of you while every variable in said formula is possessed with the spirit of originality.
The Story: Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a non-fiction crime writer who just moved his family into the murder scene of his next project. When he finds a mysterious box marked “Home Movies” he also finds more murder victims and more to the story. Floorboards creak, animals appear suddenly, and ghosts pop out of the darkness accompanied by an outburst from an orchestra. Also, little kid ghosts love getting little kids in trouble.
I once had the pleasure of attending a horror movie marathon where Mick Garris presented Critters 2 and plugged his Master of Horror TV series. While getting his autograph, I asked him “You know, as a director you have to over think so many thing and deal with production hassles everyday. How do you ensure the horror from the page gets translated to the screen?” His answer was simple, “Great question, and might I add you are a very good looking man and probably very strong too! (Did I mention I’m paraphrasing from memory?) Make sure you’re actually shooting something scary. Scary location, scary lighting, and scare your actors. Create a real fear and the camera will capture it.” Where more horror movies rely on one or the other, a scary script or scary situation, Sinister covers its bases by providing both.
The script for Sinister sets the groundwork. What makes horror movies horrifying? If you guessed uniquely disfigured or disguised villains, pale ghost children, and things falling over unexpectedly you’d be wrong. Those usually provide good scares. Especially jump scares. But that’s the cheap thrill that gets you laughing to release the tension. The real horror comes in characters we sympathize for and empathize with in situations that put themselves in danger. Not just walking into a dark attic after hearing footsteps, because that’s the necessary suspension of disbelief needed in any movie out to entertain. I mean character we LIKE. Sinister spends just the right amount of time setting up Ellison’s desperation to provide for his family. He’s on his last leg financially, so he needs to write a best seller based on a popular murder case. He’s afraid that creatively he’s all dried up so he wets his whistle with whiskey, providing additional family tension. The little C. Robert Cargill spends on the family drama side is inversely related to how well the actors pull it off. Plus, I’ve always said a little bit of humor goes a long way in the likability (aka I hope this character doesn’t die) department. Cargill doesn’t seek silliness but let’s a natural wit come out when appropriate.
Sinister manages to eat its cake and have it too. Remember all that stuff I said doesn’t necessarily make a horror movie scary? Well here it does. After that foundation of likable characters we actually don’t see as fodder for a villain, we get that fodder. And that villain. The snuff film aspect introduced is pure horror fan service. The films are gritty, bloody, don’t shy away from the vulgarity. Best yet each one has a different gimmick and method. Then… there’s Mr. Boogie. A villain so powerful that even though he’s introduced fairly early and only really makes his appearances sparingly; you scan every open space, every shadow, and every scene for some sign of his presence.
I’m also just partial to demon or Devil stories. There’s something frightening about an entity, a force of pure evil, that only exists to torture and haunt you. There’s a looming dread that the deeper our main character delves into the murders and discovers the Mr. Boogie connection, the more severe his ‘punishment’ will be. Why? Because as we’ve learned from previous occult stories, once the door is opened, it can’t be shut. No matter what. And goddamn that’s terrifying.
As a person interested in the ‘Anatomy of a Scare’ I didn’t jump as much as my audience, but they can’t see the strings at work. They were just there for a good time and I can say after every scheduled jump scare they screamed and jumped and cursed and laughed. There were a couple of good jumps that really got me and overall I was genuinely freaked out by the subject material and atmosphere. I don’t have any negative criticisms, but merely ‘suggestions’ or ‘wants.’ Near the 3/4 point it was pretty clear some of the mischievousness of the ghosts was just that, play not malevolence. Don’t get me wrong, the family is always in some sort of evil danger, but the tiny moments start to loose their individual bang. I’d love to see just a tad bit more mythology and creepy happenings with a more malevolent vibe.
Credit to Sinister though for getting the two girls sitting in front of me to walk out near the end (just before the classic “false finish” bit) because I quote “Hell no. Nuh-uh. I can’t take this anymore. I’m out of here. No thank you.” The two boyfriends reluctantly left as well. A minute or two later they came back. How could you not? You have to know how it ends…
(I have to say, because I don’t watch trailers for movies I know I want to see I didn’t watch this. Good thing. It ‘ruins’ many of the scares and plot points. I’m happy I went in only know “Ethan Hawke watched something scary scary things happen. The story flowed really well going in completely cold. Watch at your own risk)
In Conclusion, movie like Insidious and Cabin in the Woods try to advance the horror genre a little or provide a third act that goes straight to crazy town. And that’s cool. Sinister, like The Crazies, takes everything that made previous horror films works, dissects it, studies it, puts it back together, and adds a layer of style. Horror fans should be pleased to add another scary villain to the list of imaginary things to fear in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom.
Final Grade: A-
What Sinister manages to do so well is follow the tried and true tropes of scare haunted house possessed family seeking the truth even though it will eventually lead to your demise horror films… Here’s what I mean:
Family Time: As I mentioned, we don’t spend too much time on this. It’s there. The scenes are approached appropriately. The aren’t just fluff, but they don’t take over the story. Near the end when Tracy (Juliet Rylance) argues with Ellison, he explodes out of frustration. He desperately needs a hit financially to provide for his family but he also craves that fame. It’s not one or the other, its a little bit of both. The drinking aspect adds that tension of crazy. We know he’s not crazy, but others don’t. The fact his son has night terrors is a bit silly, especially the first time he pops out. Due to his long hair I actually for a moment thought it was the missing girl. The whole haunted house acts as a catalyst for his night terrors which adds a legitimate scare while not screaming “You need to get out of this house!”
Undercurrents: There are a couple undercurrents at work here, at least in my opinion. There’s an Amityville aspect where you think Ellison may put his family in danger by his own hands (indeed the family is undone, but by a different family member). The Deputy (So and So, played by James Ranson) is a bit too willing to help out Ellison. Is he just after an acknowledgement? Or is he part of something more Sinister?! I thought he might be part of the cult doing the things in the video keeping tabs on him, seeing how much he knows. His more personal one on one talk with Ellison is a bit suspicious… Also, the children ghosts never do anything. At first they pop up. Are they there to help Ellison solve the case? Are they there to draw him in? Nothing really comes of them. But just because all or some of these ‘undercurrents’ never come to fruition doesn’t mean the movie is lazy. It means the movie is aware that these things exist, it teases with them but never builds false expectations. Everything I described is a bit more of an internal inspired paranoia. Those puzzle pieces are carefully placed there but the story has made up its mind of where it will be going.
Rhythm: Director Scott Derrickson and Writer C. Robert Cargill do a nice job of setting up the snuff film aspect early. Then every night some thing creates a jump scare (son in box, snake in attic, son outside, dog, children playing “hide and seek”). The movie starts to lull us in with a nice rhythm. Ellison discovers something about the case (or cases). Ellison a detail about Mr. Boogie. Ellison watches some or all of a film (even if the camera starts playing on its own). Then there is a lead up to a big jump scare. Soon, we start getting scared earlier and earlier. First just when it becomes evident something will pop out. Then when he starts watching a film. Then when we get a simple Exterior Shot of the house at night. The tension slowly ratchets up based on the rhythm of the movie.
The Occult: As I mentioned, demon and Devil stuff just scare me. I loved/hated seeing the occult symbols. I love when things would appear that enticed Ellison to dig deeper. Like the demon (Bughuul) was slowly toying with him. The moment Ellison noticed the address connection I knew that he was going to move out and trigger the real threat. That didn’t ruin it for me though, but heightened the anticipation. It added to the ‘once you open Pandora’s box there’s no stopping it’ element that I love/hate so much about the scariest of horror movies (Evil Deads/Drag Me To Hell, anyone?). I just wish that every once in a while there was a small clue that we could see, like a hidden symbol drawn somewhere (although I don’t hold it against the movie, the symbols were all drawn by the kids during their possession).
Snuff Films: Again I loved the aspect that this was a legit horror for Ellison and his family but there was the slasher element to add to it, not just distract. The Lawn Mower one was especially terrifying. The family in the house was a nice red herring to suddenly running a person over.
Mr. Boogie: I hate demons. Especially creepy ones that seem to be possessing people or out just to torture me. And I kept waiting and waiting for Mr. Boogie to move in a picture, which when he did just creeped me right out. Everyone else screamed, which is funny because it wasn’t directly built up in an obvious manner or accompanied by a huge musical sting. I wish I could have seen more of him just lurking in the background, discreetly.
False Finish/The End: Everyone knows moving away isn’t going to solve anything. Come on. But not everyone will be expecting that to be part of the plan. What I loved though was the extended endings cut. I honestly didn’t see the kid part coming, although one of my first thoughts was “Who is running the camera?” just like Ellison. It makes sense though. Drugged, tied up, and disposed of using simple (if not a bit complicated sometimes) means? Of course it was the kids! Again I wish we could have seen just a bit more of Mr. Boogie, like him with the girl more. But hey, the movie did what was right for the movie.
Overall, solid horror flick. Lots to learn from its execution and how it could build tension, tell a story, and create some shocking jump scares.