by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Scott Derrickson, U.S., Summit Entertainment
Over the past couple of years, it seems we have been witnessing the birth of a new horror formula. Its features include mostly single-location, housebound shooting; an aggressive (at times almost comical) eschewal of artificial illumination; real, credible actors bearing something close to their A games (in B-movies); select touches of occultism; and, most importantly, evocative one-adjective titles. First, there was Insidious, now Sinister. (Next up: Ominous and Terrifying.) You’d be forgiven for thinking this “new” formula wasn’t much different from the old, and you’d be right; there are elements of Insidious and Sinister borrowed wholesale from Poltergeist, The Omen, and The Exorcist. That said, after that late-nineties period of ironic horror and then the aughts’ preoccupation with torture-centric feel-bad scaremongering, we’re hopefully settling into a groove where you can buy a ticket for a scary movie, get a few good jumps, and not feel superior to the film or a compulsive need to shower it off afterwards.
Sinister’s first shot is a doozy: a grainy, warmly sunlit Super 8mm image of four hooded figures roped to a makeshift gallows fashioned out of a backyard tree. At the left of the frame, a vibrating sprocket hole clues in those unfamiliar with the texture of real film to the provenance of the image. As the shot holds, we notice a long saw hacking away at another branch, manipulated by an unseen figure higher up in the tree. As the sawn branch slowly sinks to the ground, it acts as a counterweight, lifting the four struggling bodies slowly into the air. There’s a certain amount of poetry in this mass murder, but also a depth of cruelty born of devilish cleverness.
After this “film” ends, Sinister cuts to something more comforting: a family unloading boxes into their just-purchased home. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) are introduced in turn. Ellison is a true-crime writer about a decade on from his last best-seller, the amusingly titled Kentucky Blood, and he’s moved the family to a new town to investigate the four deaths seen in the film’s opening shot. What he hasn’t told his wife is that the house they’re now living in is the very same one that was the site of the murders we’ve just witnessed. One would be right in assuming that this will come to back to haunt him.
The most Kuleshovian horror movie in recent memory, Sinister consists often of shots of Hawke, alone in a room, simply watching and responding. While moving boxes into the attic, Ellison finds a Super 8mm projector and a box of home movies with benign titles on their cans like “Pool Party” or “BBQ.” When he begins watching the films, they turn out to be the records of five separate, horrific mass murders, including the one we witnessed at the outset. Hawke’s reaction shots to the various killings are small beauties of performance, and given that we’re well-clued in to his obsession with scoring another hit book to fix the family’s insolvency and prevent him from retreating to work in academia (the horror!), his inability to not watch the films, and his compulsion to keep them a secret, is portrayed quite empathetically. He believes the connection between these murders could lead him on to something very big, and he’s right.
After one of the films catches fire in the projector, Ellison becomes an amateur editor (any movie in this end-of-film era that pointedly sends its lead to Google “How to edit Super 8mm film” should be okay in any cinephile’s book), cutting and splicing the burnt film back together. Later, frustrated with the limits presented by his super 8mm apparatus, he moves into the digital age, shooting the films off the screen onto HD, and importing them onto his laptop, where he zooms and crops at will. Of course, all of this watching and editing is a terrific metaphor for our own activities as viewers choosing to watch films featuring mutilations, evil demons, ghosts, and the like, but Derrickson, rather than hectoring us for wanting to see a scary movie, chooses to knowingly exploit our credulousness at every turn, ratcheting up tension and releasing it in appropriate measure.
Most of Sinister rests entirely on Hawke (not unlike the weight placed on Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black), and long stretches follow him as he searches his home for the source of the inevitable bumps in the night. (Why he doesn’t turn the lights on is an unsolved mystery.) Derrickson exploits the corners of his frame well, often placing Hawke, lit with the barest of illumination into small sections of vast, pitch-dark frames. What will jump at him from all those dark spaces? Most often, nothing at all, which makes those rare moments of fright interrupting Hawke’s evening prowls that much more effective, and makes the longueur of his searches studies in gradations of darkness. For a film whose core conceit suggested a much more snuffy direction it’s quite elegantly spooky.
Early in Sinister, on the family’s first night in their new home, Ellison climbs on top of Tracy in bed. The two have an extended conversation that lays out the stakes for the family: Ellison’s quickly receding past successes, their recent troubles, how writing these graphic books affects his psychology, Tracy’s readiness to leave if this last chance doesn’t go the way they hope. The conversation is credible, realistic, has its own arc, and best of all, is handled in a single master composition. Horror films don’t often succeed or fail based on the length of their two-shots, but it’s a decision that sticks out. Sinister gets cute at times; the flashy jump cuts through Ellison’s repeated threading of the projector reek of an à la mod choice, and the evildoer himself, once revealed in full, is clownish at best (it’s like Rob Zombie crossed with the mask from Scream). Despite all that, Sinister impressively maintains its mood and tone over it’s a-hair-too-long running time, and its terrific climax veers far from the expected chase/battle/rescue dynamic in favor of a woozy, quiet oneirism.