Here’s the thing about Sinister: it knows that we’re onto it. A lot of horror movies evince a certain self-awareness, but Sinister doesn’t use it to nudge us in the ribs. It uses it to scare the holy crap out of us. The big reveal (which I daren’t mention here) involves one of the oldest clichés in the genre: the kind that makes audience members say “why don’t they just…?” and destroy the whole movie in the process. Sinister has our number, and is more than happy to punch it up as often as it can. Hit the jump for my full review.
It scores further points by delivering one of the douchiest horror movie heroes in modern memory, then convincing us to root for him anyway. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) made a huge name for himself as the author of a true-crime novel many years ago. He’s been itching to recapture that success and the notion of a little-people job sticks in his craw like used gum. What’s an egomaniacal writer to do but pack up his family and move into an infamous murder house… where the blood has hardly dried and the killer is still on the loose? Wife freaking out? Police harassing him? Kids waking up in the night doing that freaky spider walk thing? Who cares! He’s making art, baby! Or at least commerce.
Naturally, there’s more to it than just a creepy old house and naturally clues soon arise speaking to a monstrous evil at the source of it all. Most of them appear in a box of old 8 mm movies, depicting similar murders all over the country. Watching them has a freaky effect on Ellison, who starts to see a demonic figure within the frames. It could just be the booze he keeps pounding down. Then again…
Hawke and director Scott Derrickson have free rein to pump up Ellison’s asshole factor since we still care about his innocent family dragged along for the ghoulish ride. It makes for a fascinating dynamic, since we end up in this guy’s corner despite the fact that he richly deserves a grisly end.
Sinster also plays fun games with the fourth wall, quietly suggesting that we the audience have been “infected” with the same evil scaring the folks onscreen. It doesn’t push the button too hard; instead it merely lays down the suggestion and lets us think about it as the shocks and the loud noises build up. On a technical level, the film does quite well, though the scares can be a tad bit mechanistic at times. The script bends over backwards to close existing plot holes (like why Ellison doesn’t just go straight to the cops with the evidence he finds), while DP Chris Door understands that what we don’t see can scare us more than what we do.
That all combines to make Sinister a terrific exercise in genre chills: smarter than it looks, fascinating in its details and scary as hell when it wants to be. It takes its story seriously without skimping out on the fun, and it engages its intended audience by respecting our intelligence (even as it plays one hell of a dirty trick on us). 2012 proved to be a bumper year for horror pictures, led by the likes of Cabin in the Woods, The Woman in Black and The Innkeepers. Add Sinister to that list: a solid little shocker that holds up well amid some very respectable company.
The Blu-ray does great things in the technical categories – sound and image are gorgeous – though it skimps a bit on extra features Derrickson records two audio commentaries – one as director, one as co-writer – that focus on technical details more than production insights. A collection of deleted scenes and a pair of short docs (concerning true-crime authors and haunted houses, respectively) round out the disc.