8 October 2012


In the past couple of years, I've enjoyed the ghost train brand of horror that comes from cinema experiences like Insidious, The Woman In Black, and the superior Paranormal Activity 3. At the same time, none of those films really put story first, except maybe PA3, as a mythology-building prequel to the first two films. Sinister, co-written by director Scott Derrickson and film critic-turned-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, succeeds by putting the "story" part of "horror story" first and foremost.

Ellison Oswalt is a true crime novelist who's spent a decade trying to replicate the success of his breakout hit, and has dragged his family through move after move in pursuit of grisly crime scenes. Without telling his wife, their latest move puts them in the house where the previous residents were hung from a tree in the backyard. In the course of his research, Ellison finds a box of old super-8 reels, which show not only the hanging, but the murders of several other families, all connected by the presence of a mysterious figure.

The common thing that people might take away from Sinister is that most of the scares were in the trailer. This depends entirely on what scares you. It's true, that a lot of the jump scares in the film are in the trailers, but as we've said maaaany times, that's a problem with marketing, not with the film. It's also true that Sinister relies far less on the jump scares that those aforementioned movies thrive upon, and that the real scares are in the narrative, and the script, rather than the sound design.

As has been hinted by the trailers, this is actually quite a sly spin on the found footage sub-genre, which hearkens back to the early use of the trope, in Cannibal Holocaust. It's twice as effective for concentrating on being scary, rather than also trying to convince you that it's really real footage, and that all of this is so much scarier for having actually happened. Instead, Derrickson and Cargill commit to Ellison's perspective on the celluloid snuff films, and the consequences of uprooting his family to move into the crime scene, and use the device to tell the story properly.

Ethan Hawke is great as Ellison, and neither he nor the writers are afraid to let him be an unsympathetic character. While we might not always agree with him, we are able to understand where he's coming from, and why he doesn't simply haul ass out of the house at the first sign of Mr. Boogie, a white-faced figure. Just as Captain Howdy was the nickname for Pazuzu in The Exorcist, Mr. Boogie has a mythology behind him too, and the gradual reveal of the link between the separate murder cases is spellbinding and deeply unsettling.

His supernatural M.O. recalls both Ringu and a recent episode of Doctor Who in alternate parts, but like some of the best modern horror films, its debts to previous horror texts is forgivable for being so meticulously executed, with such importance placed upon story and character. My sole reservation about Sinister is that, after burning so slowly and ramping up the tension and the chills all the way through, the very ending feels rushed by comparison to the rest of it. After a chilling and surprising denouement, the final shot is depressingly predictable, and seems to self-consciously acknowledge Mr. Boogie's potential as a new iconic horror villain, in sequels that would inevitably be less interesting than this one.

If we accept that The Cabin in the Woods was more of a film about the horror genre, than an actual horror film, then Sinister is the best horror movie of the year so far. It's been a slow year, sure, but here's a film that both reacts and responds to the prevalent trends of modern, English-language horror movies- found footage and jump scares. It cultivates a tremendously frightening atmosphere, not with sporadic jump scares divided through the running time, but with elements as deceptively simple as the score, whose incessant bassline recalls the rhythm of Ellison's projector, unspooling at the end of each horrifying home movie. Despite my reservations, I shivered when the credits rolled, and I've been shivering ever since.

Sinister is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Sinister, why not share your comments below? C. Robert Cargill is better known as AICN's Massawyrm, and Spill.com's Carlyle. When a film critic turns screenwriter, with this much success, there's hope for any of us...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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