Horror movies have come a long way. It felt like there was a stretch of about 15 years or so where so many PG-13 atrocities came along to draw teenagers in. In recent memory we’ve had movies like The Conjuring, Get Out, Hereditary, and The VVitch that have pretty much changed the game, but for a minute there, any time the genre has something new to offer, it not only never felt new, but it felt cheap and often, rather stupid. I’m not sure where this all turned around, but I feel like Scott Derrickson’s Sinister was a part of it.
Here is a pretty effective horror film, and for a number of reasons. The main one might be that Derrickson wasn’t afraid to go all the way. Sure, you come across disturbing things in a lot of horror movies, but it feels like a lot of them are saturated, for the sake of drawing in box office numbers. Sinister is indeed rated R, and it wears its R-rating with glee. The events that transpire in Sinister are all the more unsettling and disturbing because of it. It’s certainly not a pleasant film, that’s for sure, and there is more than your fair share of torture sequences that are nauseating. What elevates Sinister past torture porn though is that the torture, for once, isn’t just there to be gross, but it’s genuinely haunting. That, and it’s in service of a story that is honestly pretty original.
Ethan Hawke, one of our best, most diverse actors (if you haven’t seen Paul Schrader’s masterpiece First Reformed, do yourself a favor) stars as a true crime writer named Ellison Oswalt (great name, especially for a writer). As the film opens, we see a home movie of a family hanging from a tree, and a branch holding the rope that’s keeping them suspended falling. Well, turns out Mr. Oswalt is moving his entire family into that house, and is keeping his entire family in the dark on it. Oswalt struck true crime gold with his novel Kentucky Blood, and hopes that diving into the mystery of this family murder will find him great success once again.
It turns out that a member of the deceased family is still missing, so that also adds to the mystery. But Ellison stumbles across a box in the attic filled with home movies, labeled, in a darkly humorous manner, with names such as “Family hanging out” (which was the one we first see) and “Family BBQ” (which, you could probably assume, is a family being burnt alive). The further Ellison dives into this though the more he begins to find a connection between the videos. Not only that, he finds himself starting to drink more, and he finds that he, as well as his family, might be in danger too.
One thing you’ll notice about this Oswalt fella is that, well, he must really like the darkness. Sure, watching a home movie in the dark makes a world of difference. But this guy chooses to walk around his house, alone, in the dark. When things start to begin lurking around the house behind him, it’s pretty much always in darkness. Was this guy this way at his previous homes? He is aware there’s a light switch, right?
That’s just it though: if he wasn’t this way, we might not have a movie. Derrickson’s film is thoroughly unsettling, from its darkness to its score, everything here is done well and convincingly. The performances really sell it well too. Hawke is his usual pretty great self. Juliet Rylance is pretty good here too as his wife, who doesn’t immediately suspect that her husband has taken her and her family for another horrific stroll. And James Ransone is a charmer as a police officer helping Ellison, and he asks him if, when he finishes the book, if he can be credited as “Deputy So and So.”
There is a moment or two here that is kinda silly. The main one is probably when their son, who sleepwalks, crawls out of a box. This is also a movie where you want to take a guy like Ellison and smack sense into him. Yet what Derrickson’s film does well, it does really well. It’s creepy, disturbing, and well crafted, with a villain who is of few words but none the less burns in the memory. It leads to a finale that is grim and brutal, but it haunts you long after you see it. It certainly wasn’t a fun time at the movies, but for those of us who enjoy movies where things go bump in the night, you’d be hard pressed to find many that are done this well.
Note: I heard recently of a study that supposedly stated that this was the scariest movie ever made. I cannot quite agree, but I can certainly see why.