October 12, 2012 1 Comment
Desperate to recreate the success of his first best-seller after a string of misfires, true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his long-suffering family into the crime-scene of a horrific murder in search of inspiration. Whilst unpacking, Ellison finds a box of old Super 8 home movies in the attic, each cannister revealed to contain footage not only from the massacre in question — a family (sans one of the daughters) hung from a tree in the garden — but from similar attacks across the United States. While wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) attempt to adjust to their new surroundings, Ellison becomes increasingly unhinged as he is plagued by visions of a nightmare creature known as the Bagul.
Struggling authors have long formed the basis of horror stories, whether the writers are tormented by deluded fans (Misery) or their own subconscious (Secret Window), and the profession of its protagonist is but one of many clichés at the heart of Scott Derrickson’s new film, Sinister. But while comparisons could be easily drawn with everything from The Shining to last year’s Insidious, Sinister is most remarkable for the trends it dares to buck.
Co-written by American film critic C. Robert Cargill, Sinister is alleged to have begun life as a nightmare. Steeped in horror tradition and well-versed in the criticisms too often levelled at the genre, Cargill has written a screenplay that stands head and shoulders above the year’s other horror offerings. Almost in the vein of Drew Goddard’s subversive The Cabin in the Woods, he and Derrickson have permitted audiences a peek behind the curtain as we witness the flagging found footage format from an entirely new angle. What these movies have so far failed to detail is what exactly happens to the footage’s finder.
Perhaps surprisingly, these reels of Super 8 footage are amongst the film’s strongest facets. Doing away from the hours of tedious build up that comprise around 95% of such movies, Sinister instead shows only the murders themselves. Ironically titled “Hanging Out”, “Pool Party” and “Sleepy Time”, these snuff movies provide some of the most shocking, unsettling and genuinely horrifying moments of the year so far. As Ellison watches on in horror, acting as an obvious proxy for the audience (more than anything this is a film about the latent power of film), he is torn between alerting the authorities and hoarding the material for his own upcoming book.
Most movies can build at least a certain amount of suspense, however, and the sign of a genuine horror classic is its ability to maintain tension whilst playing the rest of its hand. While gimmicky twist endings and monstrously un-monstrous reveals have often proven such movie’s undoing (here’s where that Insidious reference comes in), Sinister does a good job of wrapping up its supernatural story without letting audiences down or overstepping the line. Predictable as the final revelation might be, it instead notches up the dread one step further as you anticipate the full horror of the increasingly inevitable outcome.
Sinister is by no means perfect — the screenplay short-changes everyone except Hawke, the setting doesn’t leave much room for variation and the narrative lacks the stunning simplicity of Hideo Nakata’s thematically similar Ringu. That said, Sinister is nevertheless a relatively novel and effective chiller, and in this day and age that isn’t something to be taken lightly.