Horror as a genre in general asks a lot of its audience. Most of the time we either have to accept some sort of supernatural force interfering with the protagonists all the way to some far reaching twist. It’s not always the case, but as a fan of horror a lot of times I have to just accept that the plot or the reality of the film I’m watching and maybe even loving is on some level kind of dumb. If that dumb element works in context of the film I rarely think about it during the course of film. In the case if SINISTER, I felt as though its supernatural element at times works against it, in spite of how disturbing and creepy the film ends up being as a whole.
Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime writer, Ellison, that’s moved his family into a house where a family was murdered to investigate the disappearance of the daughter of that family for his newest book. The cops hate him, his wife doesn’t know they’ve moves into the house of a murdered family and his kids hate the fact that they’ve once again uprooted their lives so their father can recapture his fame. While researching the mystery he discovers a series of films that capture the shocking murder of other families that may be related and an ominous figure that appears in the background of the films and slowly comes to a realization that his newest book might not have been such a good idea.
Right off the bat let me just say that this movie really did shake me. The home movies that Hawke’s character discovers are absolutely terrifying to me- due to the sheer brutality of some and how realistic they seem to be. In many ways SINISTER could not be a more apt title for this film and what you are in for. In particular there is a point in one of the movies he’s watching involving a lawnmower that plays out so quickly and shockingly that my stomach was churning almost all the way to the end of the film. That’s one of the best aspects of this film- the sense of dread is asserted from the first frame of the film and it holds all the way to the last.
The script I feel is both an anchoring strength to SINISTER and its Achilles heel at select moments. Director Scott Derrickson co wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill and the duo create a family that you can really sympathize with, but eventually even the extremely relatable characters aren’t quite enough to overlook their clichéd actions. The script goes out of its way to constantly highlight Ellison’s desperation at striking it rich with this new book to the point that his utter ignorance at the jeopardy he has thrust his family into is beyond delusional. The logic wasn’t quite present for me to buy into it without question, but I accepted it enough to really enjoy the things that happen because of it.
Hawke gives the material his all and really sells the aforementioned desperation without fail. The arguments he has with his character’s wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance also with a fantastic performance), are great for character building and dramatic tension along. The relationship drama are the strongest elements of the script as it creates a believable family dynamic and all of the performances at the heart of it make for characters you care about instead of actively rooting for their demise.
The boogeyman of SINISTER is ridiculously creepy, but also just plain ridiculous. Without spoiling anything the overall goal of what is happening with “Mr. Boogie” is my least favorite thing about this film. The film does a great job for the first half of barely explaining anything and by the end I feel like it explains too much. While watching the home movies the best part was not knowing what was happening, who was behind it or why it was there. While watching it I wanted to know the answers, but didn’t at the same time- which mirrors a warning to Hawke’s character from the sheriff that the mystery is sometimes better left not knowing because you might not care for the answer.
SINISTER is not an in your face scare a minute horror film, but rather a slow burning creepfest that leans heavily in atmosphere and visuals to get under your skin. There are quite a few jump scares, but for the most part they are well done and never becoming excessive. The score is as brooding and dread inducing as the film’s content which only intensifies the experience as a whole. If not for a few of the issues I had towards the finale I feel like SINISTER could have been one of those rare nearly perfect horror experiences. Perfectly fleshed out characters, unsettling imagery and great scares make SINISTER the treat that it is as an experience that is exactly what its title suggests.
Written By: Luke (@CrummyLuke on Twitter)