Sinister is a genuinely frightening film just in time for Halloween, a refreshing change from the recent glut of PG-13 mediocre output. Director Scott Derrickson brings his genre experience from The Exorcism of Emily Rose to Sinister‘s script creating a spooky, creepy treat – one of this year’s best horror films. Ethan Hawke stars as an obsessive true-crime author writing his next book on a tragic, unsolved crime in a small town where a family was hung from a large tree in their backyard and their daughter went missing. Unbeknownst to his wife, he moves his family into the home of the murdered family and discovers a mysterious box of super 8 films stored in the attic. As he begins to watch the horrific films one by one, Hawke slowly uncovers a pattern of murders and a shadowy figure known as Mr. Boogie.
Much like his successful The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Scott Derrickson approaches his horror stories as an unfolding mystery. Instead of a having lawyer Erin Bruner (from Emily Rose, as played by Laura Linney) investigating the events, he has Hawke’s Ellison Oswalt digging into a series of events as a true crime writer. Ellison isn’t as adept as Bruner; Derrickson has the author relying too heavily on others to do the leg work: a deputy (James Ransone) and a professor (Vincent D’Onofrio). To balance things out, he focuses on the character’s obsessions and the direct effects of what he finds on his and his family’s psyche, making what is uncovered more important that how.
With each discovery on the super 8 footage, typically horrific enough on its own, the scenes are followed by an amplified atmosphere of doom and further reveals of the demon found within them. Most of the tension created consists of incredibly jarring jump scares. Mixed in with these scares are a variety of intense stretches of heart stopping creepy goodness, likely to have most viewers squirming in their seats, their hands hiding their faces. The film would easily become an instant classic if the balance between the jump scares and the genuinely creepy moments was more evenly keeled. Regardless, Scott Derrickson has created a fun, exciting, unnerving horror film.
Much of the film belongs to actor Ethan Hawke who brings a complex, multilayer personality to his role, author Ellison Oswalt. The character is flawed, a compassionate and loving family man undermined by his obsessions to solve true crimes and to achieve fame. His drive to provide for his family and to leave a legacy with his writing is explanation enough to continue his probing pursuits even as the danger becomes too dire. Hawke brings the role to life, making the character sympathetic despite his questionable decisions. Where Ellison could easily become obnoxious, Hawke manages to keep the character authentic. His eyes tell the story, his face recoils in fear, which is fortunate for the film since it spends so much time with Hawke’s character watching and reading. He is so successful in drawing the audience into his perception, that when he draws back in terror, the audience has no choice but to scream for their lives.
Sinister works hard to introduce a new monster into the horror lexicon with, Mr. Boogie – also called Bughuul. As creepy as the vile beast becomes, haunting and terrifying, it maintains a restrained yet omnipresent screen presence. Instead of resorting to one liners and physical onslaught as in many modern horror films, it is the effects of the Mr. Boogie’s influence on other characters that bring the horror out of the dark corners of the film. In many ways, this is much more disturbing. Mr. Boogie is in control without having to say a word or make a move of his own. He doesn’t attack the body, he assaults the mind.
Sinister will have it’s audience on the edge of their seats. A harrowing experience at times, the theater is filled with screams of fear and delight. Scott Derrickson also weaves in a healthy amount of humor in the film as well, light moment driven by character and dialog and never jokey and providing a welcomed relief from the mounting horror. Perhaps a little too light action and violence for some, the film hammers home the scares without having to be overly graphic or ultra-violent. Coming from the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, Sinister continues their steak of bringing intelligent, atmospheric, terrifying horror films to the theater. With the talent behind the film, Derrickson and Hawke, Sinister is one of the best horror films of the year.