There is a horror cliché, of which I’m sure all of you are aware, that I can’t discuss lest I reveal too much. Suffice it to say, you’ll think about it a lot while watching Sinister, it will probably irritate you when you see the film using it, and then it will turn around and create something wonderfully freaky in its wake. Such are the pleasures of this first-rate spookfest, both in its sound concept and its technically proficient delivery. It knows enough about how horror fans think to get ahead of us, then gleefully exploits the advantage.
That comes as a bit of a surprise considering director Scott Derrickson’s previous forays. Films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still don’t exactly fill one with confidence. But here, he hits upon a remarkably good notion, then tricks it out with confidence and style. Everyone knows how the true crime novel In Cold Blood destroyed its author, Truman Capote. Why not make his figurative demons literal? The monster goes by the handle “Mr. Boogie,” though he has other names that are much older. He lives in pictures and images, which form a gateway to our world, and has a plethora of “Where’s Waldo” tricks to coax a glance out of the right sort.
“The right sort,” in this case, is true crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) who wrote a hit book once and now goes to increasingly desperate lengths to repeat his success. In this case, it entails uprooting his family and moving them into a house where another family was hanged by an unknown assailant in the back yard. Their youngest daughter is still missing; Oswalt believes he can solve the crime and put himself on the bestseller list in the bargain. That doesn’t make him friends with the local sheriff’s department, which comes back to bite him when he finds an 8mm projector and films (apparently from the killer) up in the attic. Instead of calling the cops like he should, he sits down to watch them… and lets the wacky mayhem begin.
Derrickson spots us easy logic traps like that – Oswalt really should have contacted the police – then goes out of his way to either justify them or work them into the plot. Ellison’s arrogance and ambition make him a very interesting protagonist, though far from a sympathetic one. That job goes to his patient wife (Juliet Rylance) and adorable children (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley), who know nothing about the danger they’re in and whom Oswalt keeps in the dark about a shocking number of things. The equation works quite well: letting Hawke play a fascinating douche while leaving people to root for and care about when the ghosts start coming out of the walls.
And yeah, about those ghosts. They arrive a tad too mechanistically at times – there’s a lot of “boo-gotcha” moments and loud noises tend to be the order of the day. On the other hand, the film delivers them extremely well. DP Chris Norr makes excellent use of empty spaces (mostly looming behind Hawke) while the make-up and special effects department do wonders with subtle inference and implication. It’s hard not to jump at the shocks – someone at the screening I attended actually said “AIIEEEE!!!” at one moment – and the script adds an elegant back story that enhances rather than diminishing the jolts in the dark. Vincent D’Onofrio delivers needed plot exposition in a surprisingly amusing manner as a local professor, while James Ransone scores some very funny scenes as a dipshit deputy who turns out to be a little smarter than he looks.
Put them all together and they make Sinister the horror film to beat this Halloween: scary and suspenseful without insulting our intelligence. The underlying concept proves sound, the development deftly avoids genre cliché, and the twist builds upon what came before instead of trying to blow our minds at any cost. It pulls threads from earlier horror movies like Ringu and The Shining, but remains beholden to none of them: creating an atmosphere that, while not completely original, remains resolutely its own. And good God, it actually comes from an original script. In an era (and a genre) littered with sequels, Sinister should be commended for standing by its ideas. It’s scary as fuck too: the only criteria that really matters for a movie like this.