First and foremost, there is a question every horror film must answer: “Is it scary?” With regards to Sinister, the reply is an unqualified yes. Sinister scared the living daylights out of me. Through a combination of mood, music and fundamentals of the genre, director Scott Derrickson has created an accomplished work inspired by Japanese horror. Our protagonist, author Ellison Oswalt, writes about true life crime. He has recently moved his wife and kids into a new home so he can investigate an unsolved murder for his new book. Not only has Ellison kept the case a secret from his family, but they remain ignorant of the fact that he has moved them into the very home where the killing took place. Soon after, Ellison discovers a box labeled “Home Movies” in the attic. Their vicious content is the subject of this tale.
The picture employs 3 plot devices that would each be scary enough on their own. When combined, they make for an unbearably creepy narrative. The finding and subsequent viewing of these home movies, exploits a feeling of dread that proves to be most unsettling. A video record of the deaths of various families, they remain a most disturbing document of something evil. Second, children in peril is a malevolent contrivance that really adds to the rising tension. Third and finally, the summoning of a pagan god is rather frightful. Bagghul is a particularly nasty deity that we are given a history lesson on. This gives actor Vincent D’Onofrio the slightly random cameo of being the cult expert that Ethan Hawke must contact in order to make sense of what he’s experiencing.
Sinister is not a perfect film. I’ll admit, the father’s insistence on placing his family in peril and keeping them there is a far fetched basis necessary to accept in order for the story to even occur. However, the script addresses this. His last few books were unsuccessful and his family, once used to better financial times, have struggled recently. His ambition to write a bestseller upon solving the homicide of the previous occupants, consumes him. Ethan Hawke effectively portrays a man torn between protecting his family and a fervent desire to solve the mystery and achieve financial success. His motivations are much more convincing than say John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby or Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Granted, there is a particularly unsavory element in uncovering a cache of what basically amounts to a collection of snuff films. Though the idea itself is pernicious, the presentation is thankfully restrained.
Sinister is rather chilling. As it details a man’s obsession to find out the truth, the narrative unfolds in a very believable fashion. Even when we the audience must take a leap of faith to stomach what this father/husband has indirectly brought upon his family, we can understand, though not condone, his motivations. By employing traditional cinematography along with the found footage of the super 8 movies he discovers, director Scott Derrickson fashions drama around a most unpleasant spirit. The grainy reels that Ellison watches late at night is eerie. The jump cutting, haphazard images combine with a truly creepy soundtrack by Christopher Young and a pastiche of dark original music by ambient music artists like Accurst and Boards of Canada. A shadowy figure, with a white triangular face and black eyes is seen in the bushes in one shot. The simple image is frightening. The whole production makes something like The Woman in Black (released last February) look like a ride on a children’s merry-go-round. Sinister is without question the scariest movie of 2012.