Ed. note- A fortunate byproduct of my trip this past weekend to Scare-a-Con was that I caught SINISTER on SyFy. It scared me so much on commercial TV that I knew I had to see it on Blu Ray. Today I picked it up and knew I had to rewatch it and review it.- P.F.
It’s very rare that a horror movie really scares me. I’ve seen so many thousands of horror flicks that getting past my walls and to my core is no easy feat. But once in a blue moon, one comes along that does everything right and scares the Hell out of me. SINISTER just did that trick for me. It’s the best horror movie I’ve seen in years, and proof that great horror is still being made.
SINISTER starts off with a family of four being hanged from a tree with bags over their heads, as someone captures the image on Super 8 film. Cut to Ellison Oswalt and his family moving to a new house. The local sheriff greets him and they discuss Oswalt’s career as a true crime author. Oswalt has been living off his book Kentucky Blood, which brought light to a case and led to the capture of a killer, for 10 years; in that intervening decade, his two follow-ups have not only been less successful, but have slid on facts and allowed a killer to be released. Oswalt blows all this off and continues moving in. In one ominous shot, he looks out a window into the backyard, and we see the same tree from the murder film that opened the movie.
Director/ co-writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill succinctly set up the framework and jump right into the terror. When Ellison heads into the attic, he finds a box labeled “HOME MOVIES” and an 8 mm projector. There are several film canisters marked with innocuous names, such as “Pool Party ‘66” and “Lawn Work ’86.” When he sets up the projector and runs the film marked “Family Hanging Out ’11,” he realizes he’s watching the murder that took place in his backyard. As he progresses and makes his way through the other four canisters, the mystery deepens with each snuff film he watches. Where it goes is terrifying, and leads to the best conclusion for a horror flick I’ve seen in ages.
SINISTER plays on several different levels: at its dark heart it’s a supernatural horror story, but it’s also a mystery and, most importantly a character piece. The latter drives this powerful film. As Ellison, Ethan Hawke delivers. His ego’s taken a bruising as his career has hit a downward slide, and he’s desperate for another hit. Hawke impresses as the character descends slowly into places of fear and madness, yet refuses to give up the chase for those past glories he found with Kentucky Blood. Derrickson and Cargill give him an out; after he watches the second snuff film, he calls the police, but when he gets an officer on the phone, he hangs up. The story is more important than justice. In a later scene, when he’s watching old tapes of himself on talk shows, a reporter asks him which is more important, and he boldface lies and says, “The justice.” This character, and film itself, would have faltered greatly had Hawke not committed and given Ellison that drive. It’s a brave performance, and ultimately a sad one.
As for the mystery, Cargill and Derrickson layer the pieces in perfectly. During one film, Ellison sees a character in the bottom of a pool as another family dies horribly. Revisiting the snuff films, he sees the same character in each. Who is this horribly masked man? Why does one child always escape death, and what happens to that child? Who is filming these slaughters? And how are these films connected? Each takes place in a different part of the country, and the string plays out over several decades. With the help of a local mythology expert and a fanboy Deputy So-and-So, Ellison starts putting the puzzle together. Where he arrives at the end is grisly, and suggests the cycle will perpetuate further.
As I said, at its heart SINISTER is a horror film. And boy, it has plenty in it that horrifies. There’s a lot of Ellison sitting in a chair in the dark as he watches grotesque images of families dying. When he’s up and about, he’s skulking through the house, often with a baseball bat in hand. Every shadow is a threat in the dark abode, and the attic is the creepiest place of all. There’s a scene with a box moving on its own that doesn’t pay off like one might expect, but still scared the Hell out of me. And even as I knew what was coming once Ellison started up “Lawn Work” on his projector, when it hit and he jumped, I jumped.
And that doesn’t happen with me and horror flicks. I thought I was immune to scares, and those days of white knuckled terror as I gripped a chair were relegated to my early teens. SINISTER woke me up and made me aware a film could still do the trick. Excellent writing, a great central performance by Hawke, creepy cinematography and a harrowing score by Christopher Young all converge perfectly in what is the best horror film I’ve seen in years (and imagine my horror when I bought the Blu Ray today and discovered it was filmed on my native Long Island). Its terrors will stay with me for a long, long time.
With all the junk that serves as “horror” nowadays, I thought for a long while that maybe horror had passed me by. Films like THE OMEN or Carpenter’s THE THING still scare me every time I watch. Those flicks are from a much earlier time, and know just how to get to that core in the middle of my spine and chill it but good. I’m both happy and terrified to say that I can add SINISTER to that list.