Of all the horror films to make it to the big screen this autumn, Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Scott Dickinson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), has probably had the most attention. Take one look at any respectable horror web site and the stills, TV spots, trailers etc are proudly flaunted as if with some secret knowledge that this will be something to remember. Though the film isn’t exactly a deal-breaker, it’s definitely one of the more skilfully executed horrors we’ve seen thus far 2012.
The story follows Ellison (a top-form Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who, for his new project, moves him and his family to a new home. Soon after arriving, Ellison finds a box of old films that show the brutal murders of numerous families by an unknown assailant. As he gets closer and closer to unravelling the mystery of the tapes his family are pulled with him into grave danger.
Sounds like a fairly standard horror tale, but it’s not. The thing that puts this film above most is its finely tuned understanding of its subject; the use of old celluloid pulls out a hundred references to voyeuristic horror, Peeping Tom and Psycho jump to mind, and then there’s the family under duress aspect which brings in just about any “haunted house” film you’ve seen. But under all this is the relentless beating heart of a genuine horror story. Take any sequence where Ellison watches the films and you’ll find some of the tautest in ages. From the second we lay eyes on the conspicuous black box of home movies, with their unassuming yet ominous titles, there’s a feeling of dread lording over all. All of a sudden, we want the family to get away from the house, but at the same time we really want to see those movies. Even after the first we want to know what the rest of those canisters hold. That’s where the voyeuristic guilt comes into play and we, the audience, are all of a sudden participants to something ghastly. Unfortunately it’s the film’s own ingenuity that really highlights how lazy it can be, particularly its jump-scares which leap-frog the suspense and capture a significantly cheaper thrill.
Derrickson’s tight direction and frantic style keep the film on track also lending a chaotic feel to some of the more brutal moments. Ellison’s slow-slipping sanity comes with the rapid cutting-in of super 8, an effect that in other hands might have been wasted but here gives a Shining-esque sense of schizophrenia. The speed of the film is important to its narrative: just as the characters very quickly become confused and assailed, the narrative flickers through “haunted house” past “serial killer”, and eventually spirals into a web of macabre beyond the isolated affairs of Ellison’s new home.
The film’s primary issue is one not unusual in modern horror: it shows too much. A lack of reserve in relation to some of the more terrifying concepts allows those concepts to become almost laughable through over-exposure. A scene which sees Ellison wake in the night to wander his creaky old house suddenly becomes an abstract ballet with ghostly children. Mr Boogie, a genuinely unsettling omnipresence, eventually becomes too familiar which is a shame considering he’s the reason you spend half the film wincing in terror and trying to burrow into your seat.
Special note has to be reserved for Christopher Young’s soundtrack, which doesn’t bother to come up with a specific melody; instead it focuses on blurring the lines between film and reality, which in turn leaks Ellison’s world into ours. The insect flickering of the finished celluloid film pops up throughout the film amidst abstract chanting and a host of other deeply unsettling sounds to illustrate Ellison’s mind state and keep us wondering whether he’s bothered to wake up (or fall asleep) once the films have stopped rolling. It truly is a masterful score to be put up there with Young’s work on Hellraiser.
Sinister may not be a film to induct into the canon, but it’s certainly a well-executed piece of nerve-shredding that will haunt you for some time, and it definitely has the potential to seriously disturb your kids. Don’t see it alone.