(by Dustin Putman
Have you ever been uncontrollably drawn to something you knew you probably shouldn't be seeing? Disturbing and/or violent footage on the Internet? A particularly graphic documentary? Or how about while passing by a terrible, possibly fatal, auto accident on the highway? It is basic human nature to be fascinated by the unknown, by things we cannot understand, and it is this specific brand of voyeurism that is at the blackened, macabre core of "Sinister." Directed with classically inspired relish by Scott Derrickson (2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and terrifically written with a distinct lack of compromise by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the film is a rarified breed in that it burrows under the skin from the quietly petrifying first frame and stays there for days after. A haunted house movie rooted in such reality that it barely feels like one, Derrickson's latest cinematic gut-punch marries the supernatural with the kind of horrors that run rampant in the everyday world. That he does this so smartly, so methodically, and so deliberately injects the gradual pacing with an increasing level of anxiety-laden intrigue matched by our protagonist's experiences. As concerned with creating a suffocating, underlyingly doom-fraught mood as he is with providing jump scares - these are used sparingly, the spooky atmosphere far more effective than any gimmick with a musical stinger - Derrickson shows that he knows exactly what he's doing. "Sinister" lives up to every inference its title alludes to. Article continues below
Ten years ago, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) took the publishing world by storm with "Kentucky Blood," a revelatory true-crime exposť that inspired the thought-closed case to be reopened. Having exhausted most of his earnings and hungry to match his earlier success, he moves his family to a rural town in Pennsylvania as he hopes to begin investigating and writing his new book. What his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and children, 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and 8-year-old Ashley (Clare Foley), are unaware of is why they got such a good deal on the property: it is the subject of Ellison's latest work and the location where a family was murdered, ritualistically hung from the tree that still stands in the backyard. The only member not found: the youngest daughter Stephanie, abducted and long-presumed dead. Studying such a horrible crime could lead anyone to a few sleepless nights, but Ellison stumbles upon far more than he bargained for when he finds a box of super-8 films in the attic. On each one, innocuously labeled like home movies commemorating barbecues and pool parties, is footage of a different family being first stalked by the camera, then killed. Ellison is shaken by what he sees - is there any wonder why he starts drinking again? - but also thrilled to be onto something potentially far greater and more groundbreaking than a single criminal case. In poring over these snuff films and trying to unravel their eerie connections, however, there is the danger that the evil behind the atrocities - a demonic pagan deity known as Mr. Boogie (Nicholas King), one of the common threads glimpsed on every reel of footage - may somehow be unearthed once more. Article continues below
Ellison's first mistake -moving into a house where the lives of the former residents were so brutally dispatched - is the only one he makes while still in control of his destiny. From this point forward, there is no escaping a new fate that has been officially locked in. He doesn't realize this, of course, but the viewer gets a fairly good sense of the grim reality to come, having already been shaken by an unforgettable opening scene depicting the blunt, almost clinically straightforward hanging deaths of a mother, a father, a brother, and a sister, each one with a bag tied over their heads as the nooses around their necks gradually lift them off the ground. Few movies are perfect, and "Sinister" admittedly oversteps the fragile line between subtlety and going too far with a few too many glimpses of corpsy children and a final frame that should have been cut off the film's already absolutely chilling last shot, but this one is nonetheless some kind of twisted work of genius. By not hinging upon a scare-to-minute ratio and allowing a pall of considerable dread to blanket even the most unassuming of scenes, the whole experience is transformed into one lingering, all-encompassing ball of fright.
A sign that "Sinister" is more than just run-of-the-mill horror fare and is, indeed, something rather special: take away all the supernatural elements, and it would still work like gangbusters. Heck, take away the string of family slayings, and the film would continue to hold one's attention with its careful, observational character study of a man struggling to reclaim his former glory at just about any cost. Overcome by his obsessive work practices and striving to make a legacy out of his profession, Ellison grows distant from his family. More than that, he has placed them in real jeopardy while betraying the trust of a wife who never thought her spouse would go to such extremes in the writing of his book. Inclined to rewatch his decade-old talk show appearances when he's not buried deep in his present-day research, Ellison is a man stuck in the past and not ready to see that part of himself go. He sees his latest piece of writing as his ticket to all he's been yearning for, which may be why he's not so quick to get the hell out of dodge when he spots a malevolent, witch-like figure in the grainy footage of each family execution. As the hanging victims succumb, the face pops up in the background, watching from the bushes. In a different film, the same figure lurks under the water as each tied-up family member is tugged into their swimming pool and left to drown.
For the most part, director Scott Derrickson is very careful about how far he takes things, noting that the mere suggestion that something could happen is sometimes far more disturbing and suspenseful than the times when the attacker pounces. Thus, there are many scenes of curtains illuminated with shadows and a white sheet tacked up on the wall - Ellison's makeshift projector screen - that forever bring tension to otherwise uneventful moments. He also is keenly aware of the importance of sound, the scratchy, skin-crawling score by Christopher Young (2009's "Drag Me to Hell") a cacophony of unearthly sounds, whisperings, and ancient chants. In these ways, like John Carpenter and Dario Argento before him, he proves what a legitimate craftsman he is, his instinctual filmmaking and knowledge of the genre every bit as apparent as that of James Wan (2011's "Insidious") and Ti West (2009's "The House of the Devil"). The lensing by director of photography Chris Norr is equally outstanding, giving a primal authenticity to the various aged film stocks and subject matter within the horrific home movies.
In "Sinister," the heinous depravity of the past is rustled awake and lives on, the power of its recorded imagery so potent that it's bound to finally break free (in this way, come to think of it, the film would make a fitting companion piece to 2002's "The Ring"). As Ellison Oswalt, Ethan Hawke (2010's "Daybreakers") runs off with the best role he's had since at least 2004's "Before Sunset," if not 1999's "Snow Falling on Cedars," expertly detailing his character's progression from ambitious to consumed to terrified out of his mind about something he's not so sure he can run away from. In her first major feature, Juliet Rylance more than holds her own as wife Tracy, purposefully in the dark about Ellison's book until she starts to realize she should have asked more questions. In a nice twist from the usual in these types of movies, never does anything happen to Tracy that would make her suspect the house is haunted. In some ways, this is even more shuddersome because it's been happening behind her back the whole time. Finally, James Ransone (2010's "The Next Three Days") brings a necessary tinge of comic relief as the town sheriff who agrees to help Ellison out with his research while acknowledging that there's no way he would have ever moved under this particular roof. Were it not for him, the film might have become almost too much to take, the difference between a mature, unnerving, jolt-worthy thrill ride and a strictly depressing excursion in debasement for exploitation's sake. That's not what it is, though - not when it has so much to say about human longing, mortality, and those awful things in life we simply can't turn away from. One of the year's best, most shiver-inducing releases, "Sinister" proudly joins the upper echelon of horror cinema.