Sinister– film review
Alliance Films/IM Global
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Reviewed by Anthony C. Francis

Atmosphere. It is a word that I return to often when discussing horror films. I am either praising or griping about the lack of it. My favorite horror films are chock full of atmosphere and the ones that do not work usually suffer from its exclusion.

Sinister is a terrifying horror film that knows how to scare you. From the moment the film begins the gruesome atmosphere surrounds us like a straitjacket from which we cannot escape until the final credits begin to roll. From the first frame to the last our bodies are tensed wire tight. This is one of the most potent horror exercises in decades.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, who made the very good The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the astoundingly awful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister tells the story of a true crime writer, played by Ethan Hawke, whose quest for fame leads him to move his family into a house to be closer to the scene of the murders he is currently writing about. He keeps quiet the fact that the house is the crime scene where a family was brutally hanged to death months earlier.

Hawke finds a box of old home movies in the attic and his curiosity gets the best of him. Late at night while his family sleeps, he watches the films. What he sees is gruesome, terrible, videos of the murders of not only the family who were hanged but of three others families who met horrific and violent deaths. He and we assume the films were purposefully left there by the murderer, but Hawke is seeking fame and fortune. He risks danger as he feels he is onto the makings of a best seller.

The murders appear to be ritualistic and, in the films, Hawke’s character sees something or someone lurking in certain frames. This leads us to the introduction of “Mr. Boogie”. Mr. Boogie is one of the most terrifying horror film creations in years and the director uses him sparingly but he is potent enough to haunt our thoughts throughout the entire film. He is a walking nightmare that still haunts my thoughts long after the film is over. I can say no more than this about the character.

Hawke’s search for the truth behind the murders leads him to terrifying nights, alone in his study watching the films and subjecting himself to brutal terrors. This is where the film is truly scary. The images that we are witness to are the stuff of the most frightening nightmares. They are unsettling and truly haunting. The director knows how to creep us out, and he uses these moments to terrify us beyond belief as Hawke’s study, and the entire film, is shrouded in black.  The film seems to have a fascination with darkness as even the daylight scenes are filled with shadows and dark corners of rooms. We know that in the dark that we are not safe and the filmmakers force us to “white knuckle” our way to the end of the film.

The filmmakers balance a fine line of “less is more” while still allowing us a couple of jump scares, but they are not used in a cheap way. We are already sitting in sheer terror when they arrive and we jump at the audacity of the truly frightening image that comes at us. Director Derrickson toys with us in a very dark and macabre way while keeping us in wide-eyed horror. There is a pervading sense of dread and extreme claustrophobia that is laid out by the director’s utilizing darkness and shadows in lieu of excessive visual tricks.  He allows the film to confront the darkness of the story without becoming exploitative and in doing so has created an original and supremely scary horror film.

As far as the acting, Ethan Hawke has always been an actor whom I admire, and he does solid and believable work here. He is fascinating to watch as he shows us a man who loves and wants to protect his family, but can’t stop his obsession for seeking the truth, even as he discovers that he may be dealing with something that is beyond human. It is solid work, as Hawke carries the film and is in every scene.

The supporting roles are well cast and played including Juliet Rylance as Hawke’s wife, James Ransome as “Deputy So and So” (a great in joke), and the great character actor Fred Dalton Thompson as the local sheriff who is offended by the mere presence of Hawke’s opportunistic writer.

Sinister is an extremely well executed horror film. Not since Neil Marshall’s surprising film The Descent in 2007 has a film given us such a brilliantly created atmosphere and scared us so viscerally. Sinister is truly one of the finest horror films in recent years and one of the best films of 2012.

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