Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Review: Sinister

My friend Natalie is a fan of horror movies, but she typically finds them them more fun than scary. When I asked her whether she's seen any good ones lately, she said 'Well, there's this one, Sinister (2012, trailer). That one is like...proper scary. I had a hard time going to sleep after that one.'

'Why?' I asked her. 'Did it have really shocking images or something?'

'Not really. I've seen similar stuff, but in this they did it in this way...'


A Midwestern suburban family are hanged from a tree in their yard. Four of the five are killed, and the remaining daughter disappeared.

Months later, washed-up true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into the family's house with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two children (Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley). Ellison plans to investigate the mysteries surrounding the family's death and write his literary comeback about it.

His new local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is less than welcoming: 'I find this to be in extremely bad taste.'

'Why was he pointing at the house?' Tracy asks Ellison. 'We didn't move in a few houses down from a crime scene again, did we?'

'We didn't...I promise.'

Well, I guess that's technically the truth - they're not down the road from Death House, they're inside it.

What an ass.

Ellison finds a box in the attic that contains an 8mm film projector and a number of reels that appear to be home movies. He sets up the projector (I guess he was in A/V club in high school) and plays Family Hanging Out '11...

...which turns out to be a film of the family's deaths.

My Take

Sinister was the most frightening movie-watching experience I've had since Alien. I saw it alone at midnight in an empty house, and the only way I could stand to finish it was to take breaks to watch funny Internet videos.

It isn't a hugely original movie, but Sinister does dodge a lot of idiotic inconsistencies that are typical of the horror genre. One of the primary ways it does this is by clearly defining Ellison as an insecure and egomaniacal character.

Ellison's big hit Kentucky Blood is over a decade old, and his subsequent books haven't made him much money. 'Why can't you just keep writing in the old house?' his daughter asks. ''Cause I was gonna have to write college textbooks to pay for that old house', which he refuses to do out of pride. Ellison's wife would rather he write textbooks, as their son is starting to experience night terrors.

This familial conflict made a lot of sense to me: if this guy Ellison spends his nights in a locked study doing research on gruesome crimes, then this behavior would surely have a disturbing effect on his children.

Just about every horror movie contains at least one scene in which the protagonist investigates an ominous creak or bump in his house at the dead of night. It's a classic idea, and countless horror flicks have milked some great tension out of it. However, in many instances of this setup the audience thinks: Why doesn't he turn on the light, or call out if anyone's there, or get someone else to come with?

In Sinister Ellison can't flick on the lights at midnight or go around yelling 'who's there?' because he's already on thin ice with his family for pursuing his macabre work. Nobody else wants to live in this new house. If Ellison's wife found about the snuff films and creepy nocturnal goings-on within its walls, she would instantly take the kids and move out.

When the logic is consistent like this, my brain relaxes into the movie and believes the horror. When nothing makes sense, my brain distracts me by pointing out how contrived everything is.

During one of Ellison's film viewings we see him turn away at a particularly dark moment, and our view of the projection blurs out of focus. I thought this was a great moment that made Ellison's character more vulnerable and relatable. The way Sinister handled the grisly details (or details implied to be grisly) made much more sense to me than most violent movies where the images appear to the viewer in crystal-clarity. Surely the characters would be running away in terror; not standing there and examining the gory details of whatever has just happened.

In a lot of horror films the characters are only scared during the actual scary bits, but Sinister has a fantastic scene where Ellison - visibly shaken by all he has seen and experienced lately - desperately tries to keep it together while talking to a police deputy (James Ransone). Props to Ethan Hawke's acting ability.

The period drama, the western, and just about every other film genre can benefit artistically from a larger budget: the more expensive the costumes, sets and special effects are, the more authentic-feeling the film experience ends up feeling to the audience. The horror genre, on the other hand, is unusual in that more money does not equal more scary. The writers (C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson) and cinematographer (Chris Norr) of Sinister knew how to concentrate its modest ($4 million) budget for maximum atmosphere.

Take the disturbing and mysterious 8mm films, which are frightening because of how cheap they are. Each one starts with a family doing regular things together, like fishing or having a barbecue. Even before the murder starts happening there is something inherently creepy about the way the Super-8 footage looks: it's grainy, scratchy, and the edges of the frame fade into darkness. This lack of clarity  made me feel uneasy, like there might be something horrible lurking in the background or just off-screen.

Trust me, it's scary.

The footage is also shaky and shot on hand-held. Whoever the psycho killer is is doing the filming like 20 feet away! The killings incorporate household items such as plastic wrap, duct tape, lawnmowers and cinder blocks; which are chilling in their mundane-ness.

The 8mm films are the centerpiece of Sinister, and were what got me really freaked. Towards the end the story veers away from the films and into real life, but for a good two-thirds the movie is petrifying.

Horror movies live and die by their music and sound design, and on Sinister horror composer Christopher Young (The Grudge, Hellraiser) and sound designer Dane A. Davis bring create a nightmarish, industrial soundscape at a low, guttural register.

The only sound the 8mm films produce is the whirring of the projector. This brought in multiple levels of suspense, as not only are we waiting for something horrible to happen in the footage, we are also aware that Ellison is sitting there watching it, and that something horrible could happen to him.

Maybe that's why I kept having to leave the dark room I was watching Sinister in.


To those of you who want to watch Sinister at home: you better do it at night, or in a fairly dark room. The movie has Caravaggio levels of darkness in its frame, and if you watch it with too much glare you'll just be staring at your reflection for an hour and a half.

Behold: the darkest family dinner ever.

Further Reading

For more horror, see my post about Peeping Tom.

Screengrabs: Sinister was produced by Alliance Films, Blumhouse Productions, Automatik Entertainment and Possessed Pictures, in association with IM Global. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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