Editor’s Note: Sinister opens Friday in North American theatres
The one question few found footage movies ever consider, let alone answer, is just who did the finding. Why have these terrible images found their way to a cinema screen rather than into the hands of the relevant authorities; why are they being marketed for entertainment and not being studiously examined for evidence? Being as it relates always to fictional footage, it’s not a terribly pertinent question, yet it hangs heavy over Sinister when true crime writer Ellison Oswalt discovers a batch of grisly Super 8 films in the attic of his newly-bought home. Shot in gory detail by the serial killer whose series of family murders vacated the house, these horrific home movies offer Ellison precisely the material he desires for his next hit book.
Sinister’s great conceit allows it the privilege of what are essentially unrelated found footage shorts, each packing prime scares without the hefty burden of sustaining the faux-documentary aesthetic across feature length.
Director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill have here cleverly sidestepped the conventionality of found footage scares; Sinister’s great conceit allows it the privilege of what are essentially unrelated found footage shorts, each packing prime scares without the hefty burden of sustaining the faux-documentary aesthetic across feature length. It also allows for a certain degree of visual finesse, Chris Norr’s strong shadow-laden cinematography the major player in crafting the creepy atmosphere on which the film thrives. Derrickson is content to allow the tension plentiful time to stew, his pace never more than crawling, his slow walks with Ellison through the house never lacking a palpable foreboding.
There’s a certain terror to every darkened cinema auditorium, with only a single beam of light carrying images across the space to illuminate the black void. Much like for us, Ellison is under no threat; protected by the barrier of the screen, he views horrors that cannot hurt him, yet never does that sense of fear fade. With only the sound of sprockets, the silent images he screens are all the scarier; that is until Derrickson elects to fall back on the lazy, trustworthy conceit of sudden loud noises to accompany his images. All the good done in the film’s establishment, the creepiness of its concept, the genuine tension of its atmosphere, is rapidly lost as all “horror” is resigned to making the audience jump by unexpectedly screaming in their ear. Sinister becomes more content to momentarily frighten than to actually haunt, abandoning its real potential to join the innumerable mass of mediocre mainstream jump scare-fests.
All the good done in the film’s establishment, the creepiness of its concept, the genuine tension of its atmosphere, is rapidly lost as all “horror” is resigned to making the audience jump by unexpectedly screaming in their ear.
The deafening crashes of Christopher Young’s score will likely have the whole theatre leaping from their seats; such is the overblown hysteria of the soundtrack, masking the lack of real horror with ludicrous musical equivalents of a shouted “BOO”. It’s not just in the crushing disappointment of his technique, though, that Derrickson eventually drops the ball: he and Cargill never seem quite sure where they’re headed with the story, and a third-act descent into the occult seems a half-baked effort to explain away the oddities at the film’s centre. Its final half hour bears little of the merits its first boasted plentifully, the extent of its eventual genericism by far more frightening than anything else outside of the first act.
To see a performance as strong as Hawke’s in such a narrative as this is a rare treat. Perpetually bedecked in a woolly cardigan, he lumbers about in increasingly manic spirits, the burden of witnessing such death wearing heavy on his mind. It’s thanks to Hawke that Ellison’s moral quandaries feel so real, the insecurity of a one hit wonder made manifest in every furrowing of his brow. As wife Tracy, Juliet Rylance offers a performance no less impressive, the scene wherein she discovers the new home’s history a testament to just how much these actors have brought to this relationship. The disintegration of the family and of Ellison’s mind is by far the film’s most interesting aspect; indeed for a long time it feels almost two interwoven movies, the haunted house horror and psychological character drama. The latter has all the makings of a modern great. What a shame that Derrickson only ever focuses on producing a run-of-the-mill former.
[notification type=”star”]55/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Sinister’s final half hour bears little of the merits its first boasted plentifully, the extent of its eventual genericism by far more frightening than anything outside its opening act.[/notification]