True crime writer Ellison Oswalt needs his next book to be a best seller. In the decade since his authorial debut endowed him with instant fame and success, his credibility has been muddied by a series of critical missteps. Ellison’s family have long tolerated the whisky-fuelled rollercoaster of his working life, riding the crest of his triumphs and white-knuckling their way through his immersive writing process. But the latest relocation – to a notorious suburban murder site – is about to hack the work/life balance into bloody pieces.
Sinister opens with an 8mm movie of four figures strung from a tree. They are still, seemingly already dead, until a branch snaps and the bound and hooded quartet are thrust into the air where they bicycle hopelessly in the sunlight. As the hairs on the back of your neck crackle to attention, the title is scratched below their dancing feet and Sinister’s deliciously unsettling spell is cast. For the next 110 minutes your heart and nerves will be in the clutches of Mr. Boogie – find a cushion to cower behind and enjoy the ride!
The found footage phenomenon has been flogged to death in recent times and I must acknowledge that I groaned the groan of the jaded moviegoer when Ellison (Ethan Hawke) stumbled across a box of home movies babysitting a scorpion in his attic. Fear not though as Sinister has something fresh to offer the genre, a splendid Stephen King-esque subversion replete with inky black humour, which makes it all shiny and new again. The cardboard box of delights soon exposes more than the back-story of the family who previously occupied the Oswalts’ new home. The Super 8 reels document the stalking and sadistic murders of family groups massacred as far back as the late ‘60s.
Abandoning wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and children Trevor and Ashley to bear the brunt of their neighbours’ disdain and their schoolmates’ taunting, Ellison is increasingly drawn to the cocoon of his office and the lure of the projector screen locked within. Using his own camera and laptop he draws out the macabre scenes into a virtual diorama of suffering he can scrutinize for clues. And finally he hits jackpot, finding a masked man concealed within each reel – camouflaged by shadow – seemingly dancing with delight at the mayhem he has caused. Crude etchings of symbols Ellison identifies as occult lead him to seek help from a local academic and the perspective he gains suggests a terrifying new motive for the crimes.
Ellison’s own family life is unraveling as fast as the Super 8 unspools. Trevor is having night terrors, physically reliving invisible traumas as he sleeps, wandering around the house and grounds where ghosts already tread. Creative daughter Ashley is acting out through her art, furiously adding colour and form to her bedroom walls – an illustrative narrative of the people who came before them which spills out into the hall and finally spills the beans to Mum Tracy about quite how close to home the local thrill-killings came. But Tracy’s husband is too far gone to care, trapped in a whisky-saturated paranoia-fueled limbo between his need-to-know and his inability to see.
Just as one might devour a stack of Homeland episodes, with adrenalin tick-tocking away all the other obligations of your day, so you will enjoy Sinister. I spent the film entirely submerged in a Sherlock Holmes’ pea-souper of dread. Between them, director Scott Derrickson (who co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill) and cinematographer Chris Norr have crafted a taut and rather nasty little thriller through clever use of negative space and genre preconceptions. The darkness becomes a character in its own right, lurking behind Ellison, peering over his shoulder and enveloping the Oswalt house with absolute menace. A deft hand controls the interplay between that oppressive darkness and our ability to follow the action within it and impressively the control never wavers.
Credit must also go to Ethan Hawke whose somewhat odious charms – a sneering smarm beneath the smiling surface – are put to excellent use here as Ellison’s hunger for recognition overtakes his sense of self-preservation. Vincent D’Onofrio was woefully underused but not to the detriment of the film and it was a pleasure to see, in Juliet Rylance, a plausible and age-appropriate wife for a middle-aged man. Parallels with 8MM and The Shining have already been drawn for Sinister but I’d prefer to think of it as the supernatural love child of The Strangers and Secret Window.
I lost myself in the world of this film, in a way I rarely do with scary stories onscreen, it gobbled me up whole and spat me out a wreck. Sinister starts out at chilling and then whacks the scare dial right up to eleven. Some of the found footage is genuinely distressing but a wry grin permeates throughout. The outrageous ending approaches like a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps – you see it turning on you from afar but still run away screaming like a girl. The DVD/Blu-ray release, packed with extras including commentary from C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson and a true crime authors feature, is an opportunity for fans of horror and the unexplained to make a worthy addition to their collections. This is a good one, folks!
Sinister is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 11th Feb 2013