SINISTER – The Review
It pains me to say this, but truly scary, well-made horror films being released in theaters are few and far between these days. Such films being released during the holy horror month of October — oddly — are even more scarce. Fortunately, we have writer C. Robert Cargill‘s frightening film to thank, inspired by the persistent image of a family hanging dead from an old tree, which haunted his dreams until the day he wrote the screenplay… or, perhaps it still does.
SINISTER is Cargill’s first feature screenplay and is directed by Scott Derrickson (HELLRAISER: INFERNO). The film stars an unlikely, but familiar face in Ethan Hawke (DAYBREAKERS), an actor not known for showing up in horror films. Regardless, Hawke still delivers the same caliber of performance we’re used to seeing in his dramatic roles, playing Ellison Oswalt, a once famous now struggling writer of true crime novels. Expecting to capture inspiration for what he hopes is his second best seller, Ellison moves his family into the home of the victims he is currently writing about, a sleazy yet understandably logical strategy.
Ellison is not a bad man, by nature, but merely a good man who has lost his way and now is driven — unbeknownst to himself — by the powerful allure of fame and fortune. Focused entirely on his own success, excusing it as his answer to giving his family a better life, Ellison allows himself to blindly pursue a path much darker than he had ever imagined when he discovers a mysterious box of super-8 films in the attic of their new house. Wearing an awful grey sweater vest, Hawke supplies Ellison with the appropriate blend of being a loving family man and an obsessed, reckless fame monster… sort of like Mister Rogers meets Stephen King.
Juliet Rylance is commendable as Ellison’s concerned, yet supportive wife Tracy, who is oblivious to the truth about her new home for much of the film. Giving Ellison the space he needs and the freedom to pursue his craft, Tracy provides the counter-balance to a town unfriendly and bitter toward Ellison’s work. This is most readily illustrated by the sharp, unwelcoming yet witty exchange that takes place between Ellison and the town’s Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) upon their first meeting. What Tracy does not realize — nor does Ellison, at first — is that her husband’s research is gravely endangering the lives of his entire family.
SINISTER not only builds with an intensely slow burn, it creates the first truly creepy horror villain that isn’t just a slasher, but is a humanoid monster of sorts… since, well, let’s say JEEPERS CREEPERS, but that’s not the best example. In an age where most horror is predicated on mean, violent humans doing very bad things, SINISTER is a breath of fresh foul air. The baddy in SINISTER is kept at a distance, just out of reach, making him that much more frightening. Derrickson employes the same tactic that worked so well for Spielberg’s JAWS, in that what we don’t see is far more unnerving than what we do see.
As Ellison continues to dig deeper into the increasingly disturbing home movies, gradually piecing together the mystery of the family’s death and their connection to other similar murders across the country, the Oswalt family begin to find themselves subject to some very unfortunate side effects to Ellison’s new project. What SINISTER does so well is to capitalize on terror in the unknown, the fear of the dark and the inherent creepiness of waiting for the inevitable to occur. Derrickson creates a canvas in many of his shots, giving the audience so much visual information to take in that its difficult to pinpoint exactly where in frame, when or how the scare will occur, but we know its coming and can’t do a damn thing about it. Making this ever more effective, Derrickson allows himself to linger on these shots, creating even more tension for a greater scare once the inevitable occurs.
SINISTER plays on our basic fears, more than the visual shock of blood and gore, but that’s not to say this film isn’t graphic. There is plenty of blood and a fair amount of gore, but Derrickson takes the high road and chooses to imply most of the more gruesome events in the film, rather than putting them front and center as an outright spectacle. Nonetheless, the contents of this film are far from mild and not for an audience unaccustomed to some seriously demented content. Hawke succeeds at capturing the emotional range of his character, convincing the viewer of Ellison’s transformation through fear.
With all this evil menacing and bloody terror, one might expect the film to be an unbearably grueling ordeal to sit through, but SINISTER is actually a carefully considered, well-written story with a solid structure. Cargill provides just enough comic relief — but, not too much — to ease our troubled minds and weary souls when things get to be a bit too much for us to carry on. In fact, one of the most enjoyable scenes in the film occurs when Ellison and the Deputy Sheriff (James Ransone) — and fan — he has befriended discuss the validity of paranormal activity in the house of a murdered family. I, for one, did not expect to laugh so heartily in such a film, but it works and is welcome.
SINISTER is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years. The only complaint I have about the film, albeit minor in scope, is that I personally felt the ending could have been tightened up a tad, shortened by ending in a more clean-cut space. Instead, the film meanders beyond this point to divulge some additional creative story details that ultimately work, but in the end aren’t terribly necessary. If you’re seeking out some fresh new horror to chew on this Halloween, I’d have to say you won’t find a better specimen than this.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
SINISTER opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 12th, 2012.