Most American horror films these days go for the cheap, jump-in-your-seat scares, leaving viewers frightened in the moment but able to sleep that night without much trouble. They usually start with interesting plotlines that lead to laughable, cop-out endings or gore for the sake of visual effects. The film “Sinister,” does not fall into the category of cheap thrills and unnecessary gore but rather delves into a more disturbing area of storytelling with actual character building and drama.
Generally, the horror genre likes to ease viewers into the story with a slow beginning, building the background and allowing us to get to know the characters before picking them off and splattering blood. The same cannot be said for “Sinister.” The film opens with an uncomfortable found-footage shot of a family being hung in their backyard, struggling to be released before slowly and torturously dying. Don’t worry, nothing has been given away.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer with one big best-seller and several flops to his name. Throughout the movie, Hawke, wearing a cardigan that strips him of all of his badass past, slowly unravels in a Jack Torrence-like manner. After moving his family into the home of the family previously mentioned, he begins to investigate where the missing Stephanie is. A box of “home movies” found in the attic filled with gruesome, uncomfortable images actually enrich the movie’s plotline, moving the story forward with each suspense-ridden scene.
Creepy music accompanied by Super 8 film footage, a supernatural explanation to “the Boogie Man,” and camera angles and use of imagery separate “Sinister,” from the rest of your typical horror movies. Director Scott Derrickson seems to understand how to create fear with the right amount of jump-worthy bangs and actual fear-inducing mystery, suggestion, and unsettling discoveries.
Although cliché at moments, such as nighttime noises, flashlight lighting, shadows and the unknown, this film gives us something that has been long lost in horror: characters. Ellison’s wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance) portrays a torn wife and mother, unsure of whether her decision to stand behind her husband is right for her children Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario). The new use of found footage creates a nice connection to Ellison because we get to learn with him instead of watching from the outside. We feel his horror and disgust and experience his spiraling sense of reality.
As someone who utilizes Netflix for its wide array of strange foreign and indie horror films, I was pleasantly surprised and terrified by “Sinister.” There were moments I actually thought I would not be able to take watching one more scene and my fellow movie-goers left with a few bruised knuckles. I’m not the only one though. According to an experiment done in the UK where scientists tested an audience with a Q sensor, heart rates peaked at 177 bpm above the normal heart rate. This heart rate rivals those taken when on some of the world’s fastest roller coasters.
If you’re looking for a film to keep you scared through the Halloween season, “Sinister,” is your best bet. The ending maintained the unnerving atmosphere displayed throughout the film and continued on its disturbing quest of gruesome, uncomfortable images and eerie music. Although predictable at some points, “Sinister” upped the ante for horror films in the future.
Podcast of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill speaking about “Sinister” on Preston and Steve, Sept. 26, 2012.