What You May Like:
- Ethan Hawke’s genuinely good performance
- Cryptic atmosphere and tone keeps your attention
- A good idea for a villain
What You May Not:
- Riddled with modern horror cliches
- Next to zero chemistry with primary characters
- Typical jump scares lack originality
What You’ll Remember:
- How even during daytime, everything can still remain pitch black
While horror films have certainly evolved within the last 30 years, taking into account the cheesy low budget slashers of the 70s and 80s, to those of a higher class within the 80s decade into the 90s, introducing more supernatural elements and psychological elements, horror is a genre that has certainly seen its fair share of change. Such changes seem to coincide with what a particular culture would perhaps prefer, yet this is no real surprise as all entertainment mediums must mature and grow in one way or another. While some work as blatant knock-offs, others borrow various elements from other films to present us with an entirely new, but altogether not entirely original story. Sinister, one of the more popular and critically acclaimed horror films of this current generation now comes to bring us what many others in the genre have seemed to become accustomed to for the 2000s era; yet whether some may like or dislike it, there is certainly a vibe within these types of films (this time harboring what seem strictly supernatural plot threads) that keep its returning customers happy, and Sinister certainly presents that vibe to the nth degree with enough oomph to keep our attention, even if it’s based on a palette we may have already experienced numerous times prior.
Sinister comes to us from director Scott Derrickson, the brains behind some fairly cheap but still somewhat relevant horror and thriller films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hellraiser: Inferno. Here, we have star Ethan Hawke playing Ellison Oswalt, a 30-something family man and professional author of various famous detective and crime thriller novels that he bases on real life events. Ellison decides to move his wife Tracy, played with a very basic and standard delivery by actress Juliet Rylance, and two young children to a new home in a small town in order to help Ellison gather enough research for his new novel, a work that is based on the true story of a murdered family that was killed right in the very home they are moving into. Upon arrival, Ellison is immediately given a very cold welcome by the local sheriff, who is straight in his proposal that the family leave as soon as possible so as to avoid any disrespectful reminders of those catastrophic events for the town. From here on in it comes to our knowledge that Ellison is really the only person who desires this new residence, while everyone else seems in constant disagreement; a good start considering we really only get to know Ellison throughout over anyone else. Whence unpacking, Ellison finds an old reel-to-reel machine with various homemade family reel films packaged neatly together, almost seemingly left on purpose. When things are a bit more settled with their move Ellison decides to watch the videos, only to find some truly horrific content on them, such as scenes and brutality and torture to not only the family that was killed in the home, but others as well. It is from here that Ellison soon discovers a more supernatural element at play, and must further investigate the circumstances not only for his novel, but for his own peace of mind as to who would film such content, as well as why the materials were left so conveniently in the attic. Thankfully the only ally Ellison finds is that of a local officer who, unlike his boss sheriff, is an actual fan of Ellison’s previous works. Due to Ellison’s past as a writer being more of a one-hit wonder story, he is all the more poised to find answers in the hopes of his next novel being his second breakthrough hit.
Derrickson is thankfully working with a decent enough script, albeit easily of higher quality than some of his previous straight-to-video works, and it shows. Sinister initially sucks the audience in for no other reason than its gloomy atmosphere and fatigued character moods, set to a decidedly dark and glum color palette; as is typical we see the same cliched surroundings and introductions you would expect from a modern horror showing – continuous cloudy daylight, small house in a rural area, small town sheriffs, low lighting, slow-panning cameras, etc. Yet this style, although unoriginal, works, but perhaps only for reasoning of it being a horror film and such a familiar build-up for later scares never fails to entice audiences, even if they tend to be the more casual ones. However much the film faults won’t really be appreciated until it’s over. What is worth mentioning is the idea for the opening shot, being an extremely creepy one that stills itself for a good minute while we as the audience try to figure out what exactly we’re looking at. Small ideas like it give the film a unique feel, although they are way too few and far between. So once the script gets to the gritty and us knowing where the plot leads, does the film do what feels like a non-stop repetition of the same circumstance, almost on a loop. Ellison works on his novel at night whilst his family sleeps, therefore giving us a forgivable plot convenience as to why all the ensuing scares are happening to Ellison on his own, as well as for the sake or perhaps the writers not knowing exactly how to lead the rest of the family into the plot. What suffers here is the characterization relationships within the family. We soon come to see that even though the young son displays some night terrors as to which may or may not be related to the supernatural scares Ellison is experiencing, and his wife Tracy at time sprinkling in some obligatory tension, the family may as well not even exist considering how irrelevant they are to the entire story as actual growing people, instead of the cardboard obligatory stand-ins (since the former family was murdered, it would make sense a new family is threatened). Furthermore, not until you see Ellison and his wife Tracy share a bed do you actually come to realize she is his wife; only due to that Tracy plays better to the aunt or best friend type of role. Would it have been a huge bother to hire a more talented or bigger name actress? Obviously the film knows what story it wants to tell and prioritizes its characters accordingly, thus meaning that Hawke gets first bill for almost every portion of the film.
So this leaves us with Ellison, the author who seems to experience these cheesy scares in the following type of repetitive loop – work on some research material at night by watching another spooky unknown reel video, hear some strange noise, go to investigate, find out it’s really nothing, cheap jump scare, give the audience a hint as to the supernatural element living in the house, rinse and repeat. This formula repeats several times within the film, and after a few takes begins to feel like some kind of a joke by the filmmakers. But the question here being, are they actually scary? To the hardcore old-school horror fanatic, usually never, give for one or two creative scenes that do raise a few hairs on the creep factor are certainly present, yet it’s quite a shame that one of them was already ruined within the movie’s trailer. There are an overwhelming amount of scenes featured in darkness, even strangely enough during daylight hours, where our main man Ellison insists on checking every creepy sound; this really being the meat of the film, it is a thankful thing that Derrickson does well enough in his direction to not make things boring or unwatchable, but only mildly entertaining and tolerable; the darkness helps, but there feels nothing original in the style of cinematography, camera use and angles, or soundtrack. Therefore, it is not so much about the formulaic content of the film that keeps the audience interested, but instead some more technical aspects of the film itself; the first being that Ethan Hawke himself carries the movie all on his own, and if it had not been for his good performance and dedication to the role, Sinister would have felt like your standard straight-to-video feature just like many of Derrickson’s previous films, and probably would have been. Secondly, the invisible villain supernatural force here, specifically an old pagan deity, is a unique idea in a sea of cookie-cutter modern horror films featuring nameless demons of whatever sort taking over people’s bodies and/or minds, or simply found-footage films with forces that are never seen in any shape or form. Still, for one character’s performance and an idea for a villain being what makes a certain film work, just isn’t good enough. The biggest issue here though really is simply that Sinister is a film that may have some unique ideas but presents them in such a way that does very little to impress viewers who have at least two decade’s experience with the horror genre, but instead may mostly be seen as a work of genius by any who have never seen any horror film made before 8 or 10 years ago. To its credit, a worthy treat would be the instances of viewing the snuff reels themselves, and how various families were tortured and killed in each one. While not entirely creative situations on their own, they do add a decent edge of darkness to the film, but only just enough to warrant a light R-rating, otherwise it would be very easy to mistake this for having been rated PG-13 as the film is lacking severely in any blood content or even the least bit of harsh language, to which there are actually two significant ones, yet almost come out muted when uttered by Hawke. A second (although perhaps irrelevant) credit would have to go to the small nod to the culture of Norwegian black metal bands, where this main villain seems to come straight out of (at least for the first half of the film).
Eventually some tension comes in the form of Ellison taking this novel too far while his family comes into their usual danger, forcing him to move out of the house back to where they used to live. This eventually leading to the film’s conclusion which gives us a new plot element that may be seen as a twist but overall just ends to an shrug-worthy, cheap and unsatisfying conclusion which makes you wonder what the point of your last 100 minutes actually was for. Though we do get a fairly worthy attempt at a character study within Ellison himself, and the lengths he insists on in order to gain as much information as possible, writing the book, and the importance he puts into it above his family, as a whole there really is no sort of character growth here whatsoever; so though we like Ellison, we do not end up much caring for him. On the plus side, we do get an A-list Hollywood actor as the lead to carry a film that doesn’t do much in terms of originality to carry itself, still it would have been beneficial to either have written in the family to have some more involvement here, a better actress to play Ellison’s wife for better chemistry, or children who do more than just pander to the modern horror cliche of cheap looking make-up for some low brow attempts at scares. By the final 10 minutes, as always with modern horror films, the villain has already exposed itself so much that he may come off as more comedic than scary. And yes, those sudden loud keyboard notes to a big face suddenly showing up on screen is here and revels in all its cliched pride. At that point the audience will have too good a feeling as to how things will conclude. Making for some decently entertaining viewing, Sinister is just created with far too many cookie-cutter moments to be seen as original. Yet, perhaps sometimes it’s ok for a film to work with a formula, as long as it has just enough to carry it through, which is certainly the case here.
Besides your basic commentary, we have a small collection of featurettes that though informative, have little to do with the actual movie. First we get a “True Crime Authors” feature running about 9 minutes long, and gives us several film scenes but only a discussion of several authors and their experiences writing crime novels similar to the genre Ellison in the film writes. Fairly uninteresting at worst and mildly entertaining at best. Next is a feature called “Living in a House of Death,” where a narrator takes us to an American home that has a history of hauntings due to a former family having died at the site; perhaps a bit more interesting but feels more like a cut episode from a reality TV haunting show; general fill to say the least. It would have been great to see some sort of behind-the-scenes features on the film itself, or hear from star Ethan Hawke, and perhaps at least some background on why the filmmakers chose the particular villain. Aside from these featurettes there is a trailer and a couple of deleted scenes. One scene in particular features an entirely new character that was cut from the film altogether – a rude and curt next door neighbor to the family who makes a deal with Ellison for information on the murdered family’s history. While it can be seen why the character was cut out of the final showing, it maybe could have opened new possibilities for the film if it had been left in tact.
Graphics and Sound:
On the visual front, Sinister is pleasing enough, and since black levels are so vital to a film that is about 80% dark, the transfer doesn’t fail in bringing us satisfying black levels. Daylight colors have a nice tint from the film cinematography itself, and although the transfer does come off a tad too sharp in this regard, it’s not anything that will detract from the viewing. At the very least we don’t get very many instances of distortion, but another layer of smoothing out could have given a near perfect and optimal HD look. Yet while visually the film is satisfactory, the sound is where there tends to be some minor issues, particularly with the dialogue track. When the characters initially speak, there is a strange in-studio production volume to their voices, almost as if the mics recording them were turned up too loud, giving a small hint of artificiality to their vocal tones. A better way to compare this would be a vocal sound as if one was speaking too closely into a microphone, giving off a mild but apparent scratchy sound. This comes off noticeable at first, but just like anything, you become adjusted and thankfully all other sound effects and music are at a full volume level, leaving nothing missing or muffled.
While Sinister does give us all the makings of your typical modern horror film and the overdone cliches to follow suit, it does so with a certain finesse and direction good enough to never bore us through it. What brings this film down feels at equal ground to what keeps it interesting, namely that of a decent enough atmosphere, worthwhile villain (ignoring the cheese factor towards the end of the film that makes him feel like a gag afterthought and not the truly evil presence he begins as), and a star actor as the lead who can make up for what the remainder of the cast lacks. Lastly, while the ending isn’t anything abhorrent, it is certainly disappointing, and one that really negates your entire time put into it. If you take the horror genre seriously, and are desperately looking for a breath of fresh air amongst the sea of junk films released within the past decade, it is a comfort to know that Sinister is one of the better films… but in the end, it is still just common enough to remain in that sea of modern horror. Perhaps a more experienced director could have brought a better sense of darkness and evil to the film, a mood that underneath its clean facade feels like it’s begging to break through, as well as without pandering so much to the PG-13 crowd despite its mostly erroneous R-rating. I’d say a loose recommendation of 2.5 night terrors out of 4.