Sinister (2012)

20 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

We have seen many movies with “found-footage” scenarios—“The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield,” “Diary of the Dead,” “District 9,” the “Paranormal Activity” movies, “The Last Exorcism,” “Chronicle,” and “Project X.” It should be its own genre, if it isn’t already. We know what to think of them because when all is said and done, they are movies. But you have to wonder if someone did view these odd scenarios as if they really were found footage. In other words, what if these types of scenarios really were found footage, and not something staged for a production? What would be going through the head of the person who found it? What would he feel? How would he react? Would watching it have any effects on him?

“Sinister” uses that idea to tell a story about a character that grows obsessed and consumed by a mystery. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” or Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” “Sinister” is mainly about the rules and clues within the mystery, and how it affects the person investigating it as well as how it affects those around him.

But “Sinister” is a horror movie. It has all the aspects of such—darkness, loud noises, a house with a troubled past and a mysterious attic, moaning and groaning, and murders to be investigated. Oh, and there’s also a few odd supernatural symbols and a scary demon-face that appears out of nowhere at appropriate times.

“Sinister” opens in an effectively disturbing way—a Super-8 film that shows the hanging deaths of a family of four, hanging from a tree limb. Soon, we notice that the same tree is in the backyard of the new family moving into this same house. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is an author of crime novels, and he knows that something grisly happened at this location, though he’s forbidden from his supportive wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) to tell her or their two young children anything about it. Ellison is in need of a bestseller, so he decides to look more into what happened here. While searching through the attic, Ellison comes across a box of Super-8 movies. It seems quite harmless, as they’re all labeled as family home-movies, until Ellison decides to watch them.

Ellison discovers that they are snuff films that show families being murdered in various ways—throats slit in bed, multiple drowning in a swimming pool, being run over by a lawn mower, and also that hanging that was seen earlier. Ellison suspects these are all the pattern of a serial killer and decides to investigate further. But then baffling things start to happen—footsteps in the attic, the film projector starting on its own, and then there’s that ghoulish face that appears in one of the films, and also seems to move on a saved still-photograph. And it turns out there’s more than some human serial killer that Ellison is considering.

You know how the characters of horror films seem to make stupid mistakes when it builds up a climactic act? Ellison is no exception, but at least he has a reason for doing what he winds up doing as the film continues. He’s obsessed, intrigued, and even somewhat fascinated by all of this. The more clues he comes across with this, the more captivated he is by this whole situation. But of course, he also gets his family in danger as well with such knowledge. His son is having night terrors, and his daughter is possibly influenced by some sort of supernatural presence related to this.

(However, you do have to wonder where Ellison’s wife draws the line and decides to pack up the kids and leave this man before he digs deeper into this.)

“Sinister” has fun with the horror genre and also tells its story in an intriguing way so that we are learning with the character more and more as the story continues, like how most good thrillers/horror films work. And it also knows how powerful a film image, such as in these Super-8 films, can be. But what makes it more fascinating was that it was co-written, with director Scott Derrickson, by film critic C. Robert Cargill ( The fact that a film critic wrote this allows for more to be analyzed through repeated viewings. Watching the film a second time on DVD (I saw it on the big screen the first time), there are a few little things I didn’t notice before, but are starting to become clearer now. You can also tell where he got some of his influences as a writer because there is that Hitchcockian element of voyeurism, as we are watching Ellison watching these Super-8 movies that should never have been watched.

I have to come back to the first paragraph. That’s still fascinating, how it was decided “Sinister” should be, with the “found-footage” aspect. I’m very pleased that Cargill and Derrickson decided to go this route and add the elements of mystery and nosiness to it.

“Sinister” is quite an affecting horror film—it truly lives up to its name. It’s unsettling, creepy, well-executed, and like the most iconic horror films (though I’m hoping there isn’t a sequel to this), it has images that you will haunt you for quite a while, whether you like it or not.

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