It seems almost painfully obvious, but a scary film should be… scary. We watch plenty of films which are labelled scary, but in fact evoke other emotions, usually excitement and disgust (and if it’s a movie from the Asylum, derision). We have monster movies, torture porn, slashers, possession films, horror-comedies… but very few of these actually fill us with fear and dread. To that we must go to the subgenre of ghost movies. Not to say that a ghost movie is automatically scary – there’s plenty of duds out there.
Some of the more successful ones, at least financially, have been in the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series. Especially financially, given that the franchise’s movies have been incredibly low-budget, by avoiding tons of CGI in favour of a more subtle approach (that this also usually results in a tween-friendly rating doesn’t hurt the box office). In a way it harkens back to the horror movies of old, where the censorship standards of the day meant they had to focus on atmosphere, suggestion, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks (and people today who didn’t grow up with those films and criticise them for their lack of actual scary content should consider how much they react to movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which has very little more than strings pulling down sheets and odd flashes into the camera). Done well, it works. But will it work with Scott Derrickson’s SINISTER?
The movie opens with old film footage of a family of four standing beneath a huge tree with hoods on their heads and nooses around their necks. On the other side of the tree, someone just off-camera is sawing through another branch. When this other branch finally falls, it triggers a counterweight which lifts the four up, slowly strangling them.
Fortunately, this is not the start of another Found Footage movie, as we cut to Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), a writer of true crime books who has moved his family to a new home in a small town. The local Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, from TV’s LAW AND ORDER) shoos away some deputies who had shown up to get Ellison’s autograph, finding little to admire about the man’s work, or about his reason to coming to their town, though it’s not spoken aloud. It’s certainly not spoken to his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance, ANIMAL) or their children, artistic Ashley (Clare Foley, WIN-WIN) and somnambulistic Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario, ARE WE THERE YET?), who try to fit in while Ellison begins his research.
Gradually we learn that Ellison’s latest book involves the four murders of the previous occupants of the house, killed just as we saw at the beginning of the film. But there was a fifth member, Stephanie (Victoria Leigh, UNFORGETTABLE), a young girl who went missing, presumed dead. Ellison finds in the attic a box of old Super 8 films, with labels like SLEEPY TIME ’88 and BBQ ’78. Out of idle curiosity, he sets up a projector in his study and watches some, expecting them to be boring home movies.
To his horror, Ellison sees images of different families being tied up and drowned in a pool, put inside a car and set on fire, mutilated with a powered lawn mower – and hung from a tree. And by chance, Ellison spots a ghostly image in each of the films, along with a strange painted symbol.
Working with a local deputy (James Ransome, PROM NIGHT), but without revealing the existence of the films, Ellison learns that the murders depicted went back to the 1960s, all families brutally murdered, and all missing one young member of the families. And with the help of a convenient local professor (Vincent D’Onofrio, MEN IN BLACK) Ellison learns the symbol represents a pagan deity called Bughuul, a force that slaughters families and takes one survivor away to join him in his otherworldly realm. And children’s drawings found with the film detail a “Mr Boogie” taking the children…
It all sounds like prime material for Ellison’s next book, something the man needs after his last two books tanked following his initial success. But as he continues his search for the truth, he begins to see and hear things he shouldn’t have to face…
SINISTER is one superior, well-made film. There are elements which are familiar if not predictable to horror movie buffs, but these are easily outweighed by an intelligent script (the dialogue flows naturally, people act as you’d expect, and the film doesn’t feel the need to beat us over the head with exposition) and decent acting (Hawke stands out, but the rest of the cast is able and memorable). There’s a good, steady pace to the mystery, as Ellison uses all the tools at his disposal to study the footage, map facts and theories, ask questions of the sources available – in short, acting like a man who had written true crime books.
His inner conflict is also very believable; Ellison had a bestseller once, but that was years before, and his subsequent works were less well-received. He had given up a more stable job writing text books to come to this house for one last chance at grabbing his early glory, and despite the growing horror he uncovers, he is reluctant to let it go.
The concept behind the supernatural force is also interesting. It’s not simply a question of Bughuul/Mr Boogie haunting the house, it goes far deeper than that (I’m struggling not to reveal too much and spoil things).
But what about the scares? Anyone looking for gore will be disappointed. Derrickson has opted for creepiness, atmosphere, a growing sense of dread and unease, punctuated with scares, some of which genuinely got to me on at least one occasion, and didn’t feel like cheats or cheap frights (its closest equivalent for me was INSIDIOUS, another movie made on a low budget but offering fresh and effective frights). In interviews, co-writer C. Robert Cargill has stated in interviews “I don’t like false scares. I think the experience of getting an audience a little bit tense and shocking them with a jump scare, and then moving on it can be cheap and easy. The harder thing is to get them unnerved and disturbed in a growing way. That starts off easy and increases all the way through the picture.”
Director Derrickson agreed with this philosophy: “At the end of the day, a ‘jump scare’ scares the audience for the moment. Slow burn horror ideas scare people forever… that’s part of what we wanted to do here. We wanted to make something that would scare people in the long term, not just in the moment.”
I think his attempt is successful. SINISTER is well worth a viewing. Its trailer is here (although maybe you shouldn’t watch it; in the manner of so many, it seems eager to give away so much of the plot and best scares).
Director: Scott Derrickson (and co-writer)
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien