SXSW ’12 – Sinister Review


Strong performance from Ethan Hawke at center of very scary horror film

Screened early for South by Southwest, Sinister is a highly effective horror movie that, through the use of a great performance from Ethan Hawke and extremely unnerving music from composer Christopher Young, manages to cut through audiences’ defenses and leave them genuinely unnerved. The film is scheduled for release from Summit for October.

Sinister has a fresh approach to the found footage genre — in that it is about the consequence of finding said footage. The movie explores the terrible costs that come with discovering a cache of dark and terrifying footage chronicling the last few horrific moments of a person’s life.

Hawke stars as Ellison, a true crime writer suffering through a lag in his career. Hoping to kick-start a new project, Ellison moves his family into the house that a year previous had witnessed the murder of a family. During his investigation into the crime, Ellison discovers a box of Super-8 films – each chronicling the final moments in the lives of a series of families, including the home’s previous occupants. As Ellison studies the footage, he discovers clues to the terrible supernatural prescience responsible for the families’ deaths. In discovering this creature, though, Ellison has put his family directly in its target-sights.

At its heart, Sinister is a haunted house movie and director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has boned up on the genre. Derrickson’s ability to slowly layer on the tension to the point where audiences are completely overwhelmed by their fear is admirable – even more so considering that so much of this technique is done at an almost unperceivable level. There are jump scares, to be sure, but most of the film’s terror comes slow and steady instead of all in a rush. This isn’t the film equivalent of popping a balloon in your face — it’s more akin to slowly filling a room with gas and then lighting a match.

The found footage at the center of the film — all super grainy flickering snuff films — are paired with the music of composer Young for an outstanding result. Young, a longtime mainstay of the horror music business, has created his first electronic score for Sinister and the result is a mix between an ambient death rattle and the primal scream of pure evil. Sampled screeches and the whispers of children are sewn into the music and, when played over scenes of people being hung or burnt alive, leave audiences feeling reminded of that guttural, primordial fear that has been ingrained in our DNA since our days as cavemen hiding in the shadows from giant tigers.

Speaking of monsters, the ghoul at the center of Sinister is a pale-faced specter — an entity that haunts the footage Ellison has discovered and has a taste for children. While the design is a bit too reminiscent of Leslie Vernon’s visage from Behind the Mask, Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have created an engaging mythology for their monster. The tantalizing hints towards the creature’s backstory, paired with the fact that audiences encounter it almost exclusively from the corner of a frame or hidden in thick shadows, ensure that it is a monster horror movie fans will eat up.

Unfortunately, the film does such an excellent job building up its tension that the final payoff feels underwhelming in comparison to the gooseflesh the film had previously spent the last hour and a half cultivating. The film’s scariest moments are nestled deep within its center – leaving its ending feeling a bit unbalanced in the tension department.

The real standout for the film — and what grounds the horror in firm reality — is Hawke’s performance. As Ellison peels back more and more of the film’s mystery — loosing his mind in the process — Hawke’s performance becomes a frenzied, passionate howl and the fear and panic in his eyes is remarkable.

In a lot of ways, Sinister is reminiscent of the great haunted house horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, building off a strong emotional center (a family’s fracturing relationship), adding on a healthy heaping of supernatural scares and packaging the film in a well-produced cinematic shell. It’s a well-put together film and there just aren’t enough of those in the modern horror community.

Sinister is as scary as it is because of its willingness to explore the darkness that all children are born afraid of. Despite a slightly underwhelming ending, the film’s scares-per-minute ratio and Hawke’s pitch-perfect leading man performance are more than enough to guarantee the film a spot in the list of perennial Halloween-time horror classics.

Director: Scott Derrickson
Notable Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Writer(s): Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill

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