From the producers of “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” and director of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” comes “Sinister.”
I had the pleasure of seeing this great horror film last night (9/26) at an advanced screening at Studio Movie Grill in Wheaton, IL. It’s a new theater with digital projection (1st time I’ve seen such film presented digitally outside my home) and looked/sounded amazing.
This review is spoiler-free as the film won’t officially open for a few weeks (opens 10/12).
Top level: Overall I give it 4.5 stars and if you love horror go see it-end of story.
Deeper comments: It’s nice to see horror films moving away from the gore porn of the last decade with over the top, graphic torture and death. Growing up in the 70s and 80s the films I love in most genres, horror in particular, emphasize character/story/mood and most importantly sound. Horror is more implied and often the threat of violence is what’s scary. Lately horror has evolved (or devolved) into topping the last excess with no holds barred graphic gore and violence, abandoned the classic “rules” of horror films to the point where films become more about endurance than a fright fest.
In other words, give me the John Carpenter 1978 “Halloween” any day. I saw a Twitter post about an advanced screening of “Sinister” and not being a moviegoer (preferring the controlled home theater I have set up) I was hesitant but being a horror fan I had to jump at the chance.
The film is directed by the highly talented Scott Derrickson (previously made “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) who co-wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill (his first feature script I believe). The cast is mature and top notch with Ethan Hawke the main character who shoulders most of the film himself. His wife is a relative newcomer to US audiences from the UK (Juliet Rylance) and his kids are played by Clare Foley (Ashley) and Michael Hall D’Addario (Trevor).
Law & Order alum Vincent D’Onofrio and Fred Dalton Thompson have small but pivotal roles further adding to the feeling of a maturity in the film. This is an adult horror film aimed above the teen/tween audience usually pandered to with 20-30-year-olds playing high schoolers.
As the film opens, author Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is moving his family (wife Tracy, son Trevor and daughter Ashley) into a small house and it’s quickly clear he’s deceived his family in an effort to get another home run true crime non-fiction book. The family who used to live here were brutally murdered and local law enforcement (in particular the Sheriff played by Thompson) are none too happy to see him in their small town digging at the wounds of the recent horror. In particular, his true crime books have often focused on police errors which starts him out on the wrong foot with Thompson who (in classic horror film style) warns him to leave town right away. Hawke of course ignores this advice and moves his unsuspecting family into the scene of the crime.
Much like the husband in “Paranormal Activity,” Ethan Hawke is a man so driven to reclaim earlier fame as an author that he will keep going deeper and deeper into a hell they may not be able to escape. Much like “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” (other films by the producers of this film), great use is made of both silence and sound effects. I can’t wait to rewatch this at home where it will be even more claustrophobic and immersive.
Without giving anything away (you’ll see the basics in the trailers), Hawke discovers 8mm film in the attic in a box marked “Home Movies.” He sets up a writing war room with crime scene photos, files and such and on the first night in the home settles in to watch the found footage.
Certainly the “found footage” genre (kicked off and must successfully executed by “The Blair Witch Project”) has run its course, but I don’t consider this too much in that sub-genre as we’re only seeing the footage the character has found and the vast majority of the film is a normal film.
Needless to say, obsession with the recent murder, other murders and the films starts the increasingly unstable Hawke into darker and darker territory. His family struggles to cope with his distance and changes. In particular I want to call out Juliet Rylance’s work as his wife. Several of her scenes are amazing and could easily have been mishandled in lesser hands. I watch a lot of UK TV and film, but had never seen her before. I want to see more she’s amazing.
From writing to direction to acting to music to sound effects, Sinister is a home run on all levels. In particular, the extremely effective use of shadows, sounds and music made for great horror without excessive gore and torture. On a side note, there is a lot of unexpected but effective humor between husband and wife, parents and kids and Ellison and a local deputy. They provide some needed breathing room and relief amidst the increasing horror and scares.
A sucker punch roller coaster ride of chills you’ll love and want to see again.