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Sinister Review

It’s a rarity when it comes to the marketing of horror films that the tidbits they toss to the masses can be both potent in their ability to allure crowds all while not spoiling the film’s biggest scares. Sinister unleashed a truly terrifying promotional campaign that highlighted some of its more impactful frights, but kept enough under wraps to deliver 110 minutes of continuous tension and terror. In a number of ways, Sinister could be viewed as a companion piece to 2011’s Insidious and not just in name. Both take an uncommonly smart and restrained approach to horror, derive their thrills from the presence of a chilling demonic presence and feature a father fighting for the protection of his children. However, in spite of the parallels that can be drawn, Sinister is its own beast and is easily stands as one of the best fright flicks of the year. 2012 from the perspective of this particular genre has been as polarizing as any I’ve seen. At the one end of the spectrum are this excellent offering, Ti West’s The Innkeepers, and two stellar period haunted house films The Woman in Black and The Awakening. Then, at and the other, moan-inducing schlock The Devil Inside, The Possession, The Apparition and House at the End of the Street. The only horror movie to fall somewhere in the middle is last weekend’s V/H/S/. It all certainly makes venturing to the theater both enticing and off-putting – scary movie roulette. What Sinister does best is maintain tension for extended sequences. Even when it’s building its characters or unravelling the mystery, we’re biting our nails because we know the tenseness is bound to return soon. The pagan deity known as Bagul, who serve’s as this film’s boogeyman, is only shown in fleeting instances, usually from afar on a blurry Super-8 film reel zoomed in upon, and rarely shown in crisp entirety. This makes the quiet moments – the before the storm scenes – all the more potent. To quickly shed a bit of light on the story, Sinister follows a true crime novelist with the unfortunate name of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) who a decade prior had a massive hit on his hands, but has hit some bad luck since with his foray into fiction. Looking for his next big story, he moves his wife (Juliet Rylance) and his daughter and son to a home that happens to be the scene of a grisly murder of four and the disappearance of a fifth. Finding a box of film reels and a projector in the attic, Ellison sifts through the footage and begins to uncover a shocking history of gruesome violence. Ellison is an interesting character due to his flawed nature and instances of unlikeability, which then ultimately blend well with the scenes depicting him as a good man at heart and a caring father. Ellison becomes so obsessed with regaining his mantle, “creating a legacy” as he puts it, that he often forgets his legacy is his children. It’s a somewhat chancy decision in a horror film when you already have to deal with obstacles such as characters behaving idiotically. Ellison's dual nature also gives the typical “nagging wife” archetype a justifiable reason to bitch and Rylance’s Tracey does so in a way that makes us root for her, for him, both or them and them as a collective family. When it comes to idiocy in horror films, Sinister as does an admirable job of avoiding, if not masking, the tendency. As more and more is revealed about Bagul and his motives (and as troubling as it all may be), there is no apparent threat. Simply the odd bump in the night and the conclusions of a drunken author submersing himself so thoroughly into his disturbing work that he begins to doubt the conclusions he’s drawing. It is in this area, Sinister sidesteps the “door paradox.” There is really no overpowering reason they should immediately leave. One thing that did stick in my craw, however, was Ellison’s propensity to wander around the home without thinking to switch on a light (and he stalks around the house far too much – it becomes a tad repetitive despite the tense execution). In one such instance there was a power outage but in the other cases it’s rather maddening and an obvious attempt to retain the gloomy aesthetic of the scene. Additionally, I would strongly suggest to Tracey that she visit a sleep doctor because her patterns are wild at best. At one instance she awakes at the sound of her husband opening the door to investigate a noise and at another he tumbles from the attic hatch and we don’t see a glimpse of her. It wouldn’t have taken much to have her appear at the other occasions, especially considering her arrival wouldn’t have impacted any scares or tension. That being said, Sinister is uniformly: a) well directed by Scott Derrickson b) acted (by Hawke in particular though the child actors are underused) and c) deeply unsettling as a whole. Upon leaving the theater there was a decidedly large lump in my stomach. The creature design of Bagul is outstanding and when we linger on the demon’s face (such as a scene where Ellison walks up to the projector screen and inquisitively strokes the image) it’s terrifying even when all real world logic says it shouldn’t be. Capping everything off is the score by Christopher Young, which has become my favorite of the year. Young, who unsurprisingly upon further investigation also worked on Drag Me to Hell,  offers up a collection of cacophonous clangs, crashes and off-key instrumental strokes that compliments the material perfectly. Concluding everything with a perfect ending that doesn’t betray the fictional logic and lore the film creates and utilizing found footage as, well, actual found footage, Sinister is primed to rob you of sleep and stands to this day the only horror film to make me involuntarily shut my eyes. That is worth kudos in of itself.


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