Sinister looked to be one of the worst horror outings of the year. Sporting the most unimaginative of generic titles and a poster resembling used toilet roll, the film seemed something of a grim proposition. Deceptive this was however, as it turns out to be a solid, even surprising outing of Stephen King-esque terror.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two children to an old house in order to work on a book about a family who were murdered in a group hanging. Ellison fails to disclose to Tracy that the house they are living in is in fact the house of the victims. During their residency they incur disturbances of a namesake nature, as Ellison starts reeling through 8mm film of the murders.
Clichéd the premise may be but director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) keeps things fresh with a lean and sadistic script, an efficient approach to shooting (utilising available light to foreboding effect) and a focus on quality performances. The film possesses a thoroughly credible turn by Ethan Hawke and enough dark humor to betray Derrickson’s genre credentials.
While there are gimmicks on show (J-horror style freaky children, lashings of makeup and bangs and crashes), the direction is predominantly discerning in technique. Derrickson builds substantial tension with considered camera movement, letting negative space in the frame take on an unsettling quality. Much like in James Watkins’ The Woman In Black, we question what lurks near the characters and therein lies authentic suspense.
Sinister peaks when it toys with the horrifying 8mm footage that Ellison is using for research. The experience of watching the footage puts us in Ellison’s shoes and troubles us with the distinction between film and life. Though Hideo Nakata definitively explored this disquieting territory with Ringu, Sinister is still sufficiently enlivened by Derrickson’s sincere desire to scare.
Admirably the film successfully reworks modern and vintage staples of the horror genre without feeling turgid or tired. When the bewildering impact of the 8mm footage begins to haunt Ellison’s psyche he destroys the projector, yet it ominously returns intact. Other familiar components, like black dogs, ghostly faces and Shining-esque alcoholic writers don’t even provoke a sigh.
The day after watching Sinister I found an old 8mm film projector on sale outside an antiques shop; next to it was a black dog. In spite of my cynicism I will admit to feeling genuinely spooked. True to its name, Sinister had done its job.