What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
SINISTER releases on home video this week. This review covers the Blu-ray release.
Haunted house movies just get under my skin, man. I can watch all sorts of horrible things happen to people on movie screens, from slashers to serial killers, to gore and guts. I eat that stuff up and it makes me think “Hey, I really like horror movies.” But to be honest, when it comes right down to it, most horror films really don’t scare me or make me feel physically uncomfortable. Most horror movies don’t make me check my back seat for psychos or force me to think happy thoughts when I’m alone in the dark. But put some ghosts in a haunted house/mental facility/Victorian mansion… and I’m apt to curl into a ball and jump at anything that moves. I guess I’m outing myself as officially prone to being scared of ghost stories and haunted houses.
The problem is, at my core, I don’t really like feeling anxiety, fear or dread.
So, do I like horror films? Yes, I really do. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be re-watching movies that tempt me to crap my pants on any kind of regular basis. And that is where I find myself after watching SINISTER last night. The movie very much worked its spell over me and forced me to leave a light on while watching it in my living room. I even had to send out occasional nervous tweets just to keep the knot in my stomach from tightening too much. This just happens to me with ghost stories. So yeah, SINISTER is pretty effective at building a palpable sense of dread. But what about the rest of the film? After all, scares do not a movie make.
Well, co-writer/director Scott Derrickson, along with AICN’s own Massawyrm AKA C. Robert Cargill (co-writer) have crafted a pretty good horror tale here that tells a compelling story along with evoking all that aforementioned fear. (And I should note that I don’t know Cargill personally, in spite of being a part of AICN. To me, he is only Massawyrm, the beloved cantankerous film critic that I read and loved for many years.) Ethan Hawke anchors the film with a no-frills, reliable performance as potentially washed up true crime writer Ellison Oswald.
The film begins with a creepy Super 8 film of a family in hoods and nooses, slowly being hung to their deaths on a tree branch in a back yard. And it is to that very same house that Ellison moves his family (without the family’s knowledge) so that he can find the inspiration he needs to secure another hit. It has been ten years since his break out novel, after all. Ellison quickly comes across a left over box of Super 8 films in the attic which depict not only the grisly murder from the opening shots of the film, but several other families coming to grisly demises.
I dig this set up for a horror film. SINISTER gets to play in several different interesting playgrounds with that set up. First off, the writers get to dabble in the “found footage” craze not by forcing a whole film to come from some magical camera that was recovered from a crime scene, but rather the movie deals with LITERAL found footage. Ellison’s nightmares truly begin once he finds, watches, and chooses to use the footage for his book rather than to alert the police to murder evidence.
And after playing with found footage a little, the writers also get to tinker with what it means to be both a writer and a true crime junkie. Unlike most horror films, the central character gets to be a real person. And much of that comes out precisely because he is a writer. I think the screenwriters had no trouble working out some of their own life issues through Ellison and that infuses a little reality into this film.
And that grounding is good, because the movie does transition into very supernatural territory as it moves forward. And that is another thing that the writers really get to play with in this story. SINISTER has a boogeyman in it named Bughuul. As Ellison digs in and watches and re-watches those terrible Super 8mm films, he begins to see symbols, patterns, and even a mysterious and frightening looking man in the footage. The assumption is that this man may be a serial killer, but further research unveils the existence of the obscure and ancient god, Bughuul ( also known as The Child Eater.) I love this kind of stuff. SINISTER not only plays with true crime and found footage, but it also dabbles in mythology-building. Bughuul is a made up character for this film, but in some quick moments of mythology-building, he becomes an ancient and malevolent force.
Which brings me back to my feelings about the film. SINISTER filled me with fear, built an intriguing and iconic supernatural villain, and had the balls to take the story to very dark places. But all that said, I don’t see myself revisiting the film again simply because I just don’t always love having my stomach in a knot. But then again, I could see Bughuul going on to terrorize many more families in future films because he really is a well-built and iconic-looking evil movie god. And I’d probably subject myself to any sequels to this film if there were created by the original team that crafted this one.
SINISTER really isn’t going to change anyone’s life; but it may make you need to change your underwear.
The Blu-ray here is a pretty decent value for the money if you already know you’ll enjoy this film. I guess it looks pretty good in high definition, but the cinematography and shot composition here doesn’t call a whole lot of attention to itself. SINISTER isn’t really visually lush or gorgeous to look at, even if it does have some editing style to call its own. But I can’t really imagine anyone buying a blu-ray of SINISTER for that kind of thing anyway.
But between the film itself and the bonus features that you get here, I feel that this is a pretty solid offering from Summit. There are actually 2 different commentary tracks, one with Director Scott Derrickson flying solo, and another with both Derrickson and Cargill. I listened to the latter and could feel the friendship and pride coming from both of these guys as they got into the meat of the story. I found it to be the kind of commentary that I really want to hear. There were anecdotes, yes, but also a lot of personal reflection, talk of the development of the film, and insights into the themes that they were trying to bring out.
Then you have a couple of featurettes that draw out some of the sandbox elements I alluded to in my review. There is a short piece focused on both true crime writers and on actual houses in which murders have taken place. You also get some deleted scenes as well as digital copy and Ultraviolet copy.
The disc has good content for fans and it’ll keep them busy for a couple of hours if they choose to check it all out.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis