In his feature debut, Exorcism of Emily Rose writer/director, Scott Derrickson managed to blend compelling character drama with the overly familiar “exorcism story” – delivering a smart and disturbing film experience. Now the director is back with an entirely original horror project, Sinister, as well as a chilling new horror “monster” – Mr. Boogie.
However, in a genre that is dominated by sequels, remakes, prequels, spinoffs and other franchise cash-ins, non-franchise films often resort to established sub-genres, such as found-footage or “torture porn,” to stand out from the crowd. As a result, it’s up to moviegoers, via word-of-mouth, to support filmmakers who are trying, and succeeding, in delivering fresh scares and engaging/frightening stories. Does Sinister offer a smart and scary experience that’s worthy of your box office dollars and personal endorsement?
Yes. While certain elements of the Sinister plot are predictable, Derrickson has once again delivered a horror film that is not only creepier than most of its contemporaries, it excels with relatable characters, and a smart premise – a premise that pays off in both the larger story mythology as well as moment to moment scares. Moviegoers hoping for a bloody splatter flick might be underwhelmed by Derrickson’s preference for tension over outright violence – considering he relies heavily on creepy night sequences, grainy video footage, and the unfolding mystery around Mr. Boogie. That said, for viewers who have grown tired of the countless stock horror offerings in the genre, Sinister should provide an especially engaging and refreshingly spooky movie experience.
As mentioned, part of the appeal of Sinister is watching the mystery unfold – so, for anyone who is already committed to checking the film out, do yourself a favor and avoid the trailers and other potential story spoilers. However, for those who aren’t yet sold on the film, Sinister follows true life crime author Ellison Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) who moves his family, wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), and son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), to a new town – so that he can write a book about a grisly family murder. The Oswalts take up residence in the deceased family’s house and Ellison begins his investigation, attempting to piece together the details of the crime, until one night he discovers a box of super 8 home videos in the attic. Though, as Ellison views the tapes over the course of several nights (each one more disturbing than the last), he begins to suspect that the murders he’s investigating are just one part in a much bigger, and more terrifying, story.
Derrickson helps ground the story’s narrative within Ellison, who routinely disregards the severity of his situation, and the safety of his family, in favor of chasing best-seller book fame. At times, the character falls into the usual horror genre tropes, investigating attic noises and dark corners of the backyard, all for the sake of spooking the audience instead of acting like a rational person. Ultimately, there’s a lot more to Ellison than his actions sometimes indicate and the personal story of a man who intentionally places his own self-interest over the people he loves adds engaging layers onto an already interesting horror set-up. Hawke offers a solid performance as Ellison – convincingly depicting the man’s unraveling charm, obsessiveness, and fear over the course of the film.
Sinister also incorporates a number of lengthy uninterrupted scenes between Hawke and Rylance that help ground the proceedings in character as well as scares – showcasing the effect that Ellison’s actions have on his personal relationships. In other horror films these moments would be melodramatic but in Sinister they’re handled with care, helping to escalate the effectiveness of the unraveling psychological horror, not just fill in space between scares. Similarly, Deputy So and So (played by James Ransone) is an equally compelling human addition and helps bring some levity to the proceedings while at the same assisting in the forward movement of the supernatural story.
The scares themselves, as well as the larger mystery, are primarily revealed through a combination of the escalating disturbances in the Oswalt house and the super 8 tapes (which each depict a different grisly murder). Many filmgoers have begun to tire of the found-footage gimmick, as Hollywood continues to pump out one ridiculous application of the format after another, but the Sinister ”found footage” rarely disappoints. Each film is compelling and unsettling – with plenty of variation and uniquely horrific imagery to keep viewers squirming in their seats. Similarly, unlike many horror contemporaries, each violent moment in Sinister serves a larger story purpose (not just violence for the sake of violence) – resulting some satisfying call backs at the conclusion of the film.
Not every element of Sinister is up to par and while the larger story and experience deliver, a number of individual moments borrow heavily from prior horror films and could be predictable to anyone who is paying close enough attention (or anyone has seen the film’s notable inspirations). In addition, Sinister joins the growing list of films that rely on creepy kids to do their frightening dirty work. The children admittedly deliver plenty of spooky on-screen drama but “spooky kid” moments don’t quite live up to the promise established in the larger premise.
Despite a refreshing set-up, Sinister does rely on a number of familiar horror beats and definitely takes advantage of the overused, albeit effective, “creepy children” trend in Hollywood. Nevertheless, like the 2007 indie horror film Paranormal Activity (which originally gained traction through festival screenings and word of mouth), Sinister‘s rich premise and creepy monster, Mr. Boogie, could easily spawn a string of high-profit franchise sequels. Only time will tell but, until then, Derrickson’s film succeeds in delivering an exceptionally engaging, and frightening, movie experience with quality characters, a smart story, and plenty of scares.
If you’re still on the fence about Sinister, check out the trailer below:
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Sinister Spoilers Discussion.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Sinister episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
Sinister is Rated R for disturbing violent images and some terror. Now playing in theaters.