After receiving rave reviews from the festival circuit earlier this year, Sinister heads into theaters a week before what’s sure to be a box office juggernaut in Paranormal Activity 4, and since the two films share producers, they’re hoping to have a very good October. While there two share a similar haunted house vibe, Sinister has a bit more going on underneath the surface to go with the scares, making it a must-see for horror fans this month.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime writer who moves his unknowing wife (Juliet Rylance) and children into the house where his most recent book subjects were murdered so he can dig up facts about the case the police may have missed. The local sheriff (Fred Thompson) isn’t happy about the Oswalt family’s presence, but a young deputy (James Ransone, who played Ziggy in season two of “The Wire”) is a fan of Oswalt’s work and elects to help him out in his spare time. While settling into the new house, Oswalt discovers a box of home movies in the attic that detail the horrific deaths of the family he’s researching as well as a series of seemingly connected cases that go back decades. Soon he spots a demon named Bagul (aka Mr. Boogie) in the footage, and after discovering that the spirit eats children and actually lives inside images, things start to get spooky.
Horror and comedy are closely tied because we often use comedy as a release from terrifying situations. We need to laugh after experiencing something scary, and Sinister, while not even close to being in the same league as something like The Cabin in the Woods or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, uses comedy to lighten the mood throughout. (It should be noted that it doesn’t try and fail to appropriate the comedy of the aforementioned movies, but instead doesn’t even try. It’s a totally different kind of humor.) The suspense created is delightfully uncomfortable, and aside from some cheap jump scares (the bread and butter of this genre), the movie earns its scary moments. Co-written by director Scott Derrickson and former Ain’t It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill, the story heads toward an inevitable conclusion that many diehard horror fans will likely see coming from a mile away, but goes on a compelling journey to get there.
The movie also has the distinct feeling that it was written by people who absolutely love film. Hawke’s character gingerly feeds the home movies through an old projector while Derrickson’s camera lovingly lingers over the process, shining a light on all of the nooks and crannies of the old machine and really highlighting it for the audience, many of whom will likely have never seen anything projected outside of a cineplex. The debate of film vs. digital that’s going on in the world of film right now is buried inside this movie, with supports for both sides tossed in; the case for digital is made when Hawke realizes that Bagul lives inside the images themselves (seems like a good reason to ditch film to me), but when he burns the negatives and they return in perfect condition later in the movie, it speaks to the long-lasting impact that the medium has had on these particular filmmakers, who clearly don’t want the format to vanish forever.
To give away the reveals would be to rob you of the sense of dread that slowly gnaws on you during this film, but suffice it to say that Sinister is one of the most expertly-made horror films you’ll see this year. It didn’t pack quite the emotional punch of something like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, another recent film that seemed to be a throwback to 70s horror, but Hawke’s performance and the eerie premise will be enough to satisfy horror hounds and scary movie rookies alike. Until next time…