Let me start off with a bit of disclosure here, since, considering my surroundings at Ain't It Cool News, it'd be easy to point to any positive review for SINISTER and say, "Well, that was obvious," due to the former employment of the film's writer C. Robert Cargill ("Massawyrm"). Up until I had a chance to interview Cargill and director Scott Derrickson for the film a few weeks ago, I had never met either. In fact, other than exchanging some tweets back and forth with both and a short conversation via Facebook with Cargill after I joined the Ain't It Cool ranks, where he just thanked me for helping keep the ship rolling following his departure, that's been the extent of my communication with them. I haven't been palling around with Ain't It Cool alumni who have movies coming out, and I'd hardly be what either Derrickson or Cargill would consider more than an acquaintance at this point. And I think that's an important distinction to draw here, because I wouldn't want anyone reading this to cast off my thoughts on SINISTER as some sort of friendly plug. That would be a disservice to this flick, which is an outstanding piece of horror, deserving of any and all praise that's being thrown its way. At a time when good horror is quite hard to find, Derrickson and Cargill have managed to do the genre proud with a supernatural mystery that provides well-earned scares of both the physical and psychological variety. Quite simply, SINISTER is horror done right.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswald, a true crime writer whose moved his family into a former crime scene house where the brutal murder of a family occurred and a young girl went missing not too long ago. Ellison is aiming to make this horrible tragedy into the subject of his next book, looking to turn in another hit like his last big one, which happened 10 years ago. He had his taste of fame and a small fortune back then with his book on the bestsellers' list, invitations to hit the talk show circuit, fans seeking authographs, etc., and he's left to chase it with one more hit that can settle him and his family in someplace quaint for the long haul. In starting his research, with no willing cooperation from local law enforcement who is usually painted as incompetent in his writings, Ellison comes across a box of home movies all alone in the attic, and upon watching the first one, realizes that there is something horrible at play with the hanging that took place in what is now his backyard and a series of other murders that may be somehow connected.
What Derrickson and Cargill are able to do with their script though is give Ellison a credible reason to stay in that house and keep the story progressing forward. Often times, it's easy for the audience to wonder what the protagonist of a horror film is still doing around when they have ample opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge and take their family out of harm's way. But Ellison has been gifted with an understandable fatal flaw that doesn't have SINISTER jumping the shark, and as a result of the poor choices he makes stemming from that flaw, you know that things can't possibly end well for him or his family... it's just a matter of how the movie opts to get there.
All of SINISTER relies on Hawke, who is up to the challenge of projecting a father with selfish interests who really isn't a bad guy... he's simply trying to do what's best for his family, which also happens to be what's best for him. In the wrong hands, Ellison could easily be viewed as a prick, someone putting his family's life on the line, unbeknownst to them, for his own gain. There is a bit of that to Hawke's take on the character, but there's also something particularly relatable to him. He has to make hard decisions in order to provide well for his family. It sure as hell serves him, too, but he has a legitimate justification for how it will make things better for his wife, son and daughter.
However, what makes SINISTER incredibly frightening is watching the breakdown of a man obsessed with finding the connection between all of the movies he found against the backdrop of this creepy supernatural figured named Mr. Boogie whose very presence reeks of bad intentions. SINISTER is well-crafted with each new scene revealing a bigger piece to the puzzle, pushing that slow burn of uneasiness as to what may happen next while also committed to some well-timed jump scares that feel perfectly natural in their moments.
Derrickson had tried to mix genres in the past with THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, which mashed a courtroom drama together with a possession film. While that film managed to do some things right, SINISTER is a much more organic fit, bringing a mystery together with a supernatural horror. They both work off similar approaches to intensity, getting your pulse going with the uncertainty of what'll be unveiled next. Derrickson is able to work off both ends, using the mystery surrounding this series of murders to drive SINISTER's story forward and Mr. Boogie to stir up the scares, then having them both meet in the middle in a position where one couldn't exist without the other.
There's something eerie about a quiet and spacious house as it is. When you start introducing terrifying visuals as well, that's the recipe for bad things to take place. And yet SINISTER brilliantly creates a family that feels very real and puts them in the middle of this situation. You're not afraid with them. You're afraid for them, because you can see a bit of yourself in their existence. They don't do anything out of the ordinary or incredibly stupid. All of their actions are perfectly reasonable, which makes SINISTER all the more terrifying, as there's a sense that no matter what the Oswald family may have done, the actions that take place in this film couldn't have been avoided. Witnessing that sense of helplessness is a truly terrifying experience.
SINISTER isn't a horror film that happens to be good. It's a good film that just so happens to be horror. A sound story and intriguing characters lay the groundwork for the scares to be brought to you, and whether it's jump scares or fear of the unknown that get you, SINISTER offers up something for everyone's tastes, registering it as one of the more well-rounded horror films I've seen in awhile.
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