Sinister Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by C. Robert Cargill
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Vincent D’Onofrio
Rated R | 110 Minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2012
From the producer of Insidious and Paranormal Activity, and the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Osborne, a true-crime novelist hell-bent on uncovering the mysterious circumstances regarding a family’s grisly murder.
Sinister opens with Super 8 footage of a family standing under a tree, their hands and feet bound, with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. Slowly, the family of four is lifted by their necks and strangled, their legs kicking for life, until they are dead.
Months later, Osborne moves into the murdered family’s home with his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their two children Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario). While his family has no knowledge of their new home’s trouble past, Ellison has strategically moved there to fully investigate the crime scene, as he plans on using the family’s murder as the basis for his new book.
Ellison finds a box in the attic labeled ‘Home Movies,’ which contains a projector and several reels of Super 8 film footage. The home movies include rather mundane titles like BBQ ’79 and Pool Party ’66. Deciding to get an early start on his work, Ellison locks himself away with a bottle of whiskey and begins watching the films. He starts with Family Hanging Out ’11, which of course is the disturbing footage from the film’s opening.
In classic ‘found footage’ style, each film reel in this weird collection of home movies shows a family being brutally murdered by an unseen killer – whoever’s behind the camera. As Ellison delvers deeper into his research, he ascertains that the killings are ritualistic in nature and have taken place all across the county. Ellison’s work threatens to put his family in danger as he uncovers a supernatural entity in the footage.
Sinister‘s central idea – that film itself can be evil – is reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ring, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and the recent found footage anthology, V/H/S. With the convenience of our technological advances, we’ve lost an appreciation for media. If you’ve ever developed a photograph, shot your Super 8 home movies, or carefully lowered the needle onto a grooved vinyl record, then you can appreciate what I’m getting at. There’s nothing tangible about today’s media – it’s all discs and digital copies and audio files.
Would Sinister be as scary if Ellison found a flash drive filled with QuickTime videos of families being murdered? I doubt it – Derrickson’s film would be reduced to one of those YouTube fright videos where you’re watching a station wagon drive through the countryside and suddenly a creepy kid jumps out at you.
The horror comes from the idea that something evil has been imprinted onto the film itself, something that appears only when light from the projector shines through it. Ellison constantly has to splice the film and make repairs to the equipment – it takes effort for him to uncover the truth. And maybe that’s what I appreciate so much about this film. Both Derrickson and Cargill understand the power of film – of cinema – and approach not just the artform, but the medium, with competence and respect.
While Sinister is exceedingly dark, disturbing, and horrific, there’s something weirdly romantic about it. Well written and cleverly conceived, Sinister was no doubt crafted with a passion for film and the horror genre. Ethan Hawke, who had a blink-and-you-missed-it uncredited cameo in Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake, has atoned for his cinematic sins by fully committing to this film. Hawke isn’t sleepwalking through some b-movie slasher-fest to collect a paycheck – he convinces you completely and realizes Ellison’s desperation as a novelist whose 15 minutes of fame have passed.
There are far too many revelations and twists to Cargill’s story to say more about the film’s plot, but rest assured – Sinister will scare you. It might even keep you up at night. In a genre that is seemingly dead and devoid of originality, it’s refreshing to see a horror film in 2012 that isn’t a remake or a sequel to some tired, worn-out franchise (*cough* Paranormal Activity *cough*).
As far as straight-ahead horror movies this year, I’d be inclined to put Sinister at the top of the pile, along with Eduardo Sánchez’s Lovely Molly. It’s an effective film that, while burdened by the occasional cheap scare, knows its audience and manages to both frighten and entertain those looking for the cinematic equivalent to a bump in the night.