I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “Sinister” is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. Or how it broke new ground in the genre. Quite honestly, it may or may not be and it really didn’t do anything new. But, if I were to describe it in a few words, it would be simple, scary, effective and honest.
“Sinister” tells the tale of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a writer of True Crime books who’s gone ten years between bestsellers. In a desperate attempt to mine another tragedy into publishing gold, Oswalt moves his family to a small town where a family was murdered some years ago. However, what he doesn’t tell them – including his rightfully anxious wife (Juliet Rylance) – is that he’s moved them into the murdered family’s house. While they are unpacking, Oswalt finds a box with a 8mm projector and a box of home movies. Not just any home movies though, these movies record the unfortunate ends of more families than just the one he’s researching. Could it near a blockbuster new book for him or something far more… well, sinister.
The latest film from director Scott Derrickson (whose last film was the unfortunate remake of “The Day The Earth Stood Still”), “Sinister” did not scare me. It did something a bit more remarkable: it gave me chills. Stephen King, in his breakdown of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, lays out three levels of horror. The lowest is the gross out: blood, guts, bodily fluids and whatnot. Next, comes horror- maybe it’s a monster or something leaping out at you. The highest level is terror. Terror is the instinctive knowledge of wrongness, something that exists where you can’t touch it but it can touch you. And for me, that’s where “Sinister” operates. And while it really does nothing new, what it does, it does right.
We don’t just have victims here, we have characters. They have motivations for what they do and aren’t just being put through the paces for our amusement. Hawke is wonderful to watch as the obsessive Oswalt. Where in most films of this type, the main character stays in a bad situation because he’s too stupid to leave, here Oswalt is driven by his desire for another bestseller, even though he knows it puts his family in a bad position. In his head, he rationalizes it as doing what will be best in the long run. For me, it’s a conundrum that holds echoes of Poe as his obsessions drive him deeper and deeper into a mystery that may be the end of him. It’s a beautiful madness to watch. Rylance’s character counterbalances Hawke perfectly: she wants to be supportive but is tired of all the troubles that her husband’s writing has brought the family. performance-wise, she sells it perfectly striking the ideal balance between loving tenderness and the seething anger and frustration underneath. Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley also do a great job and the couple’s children doing their best to deal with the particular hardships their father’s job put on them.
With all this being said, what kind of movie is “Sinister”? Is it a haunted house movie? A serial killer movie? Creepy kids? The simple answer is yes and no. It’s all of these things but probably not how you’re used to experiencing them. It’s certainly not how I’m used to experiencing them. Most films lately beat you over the head with the fact that they’re trying to scare you: repeated setups for jump-scares, scary implements of violence and buckets of blood. This film takes you by the hand, leads you into a garden of madness and lets you take in the sights. They do this with a perfect storm of music and visuals. They may not gross you out, but they will certainly stay with you.
“Sinister” is not the horror movie that leaps out at you from behind a tree. It’s the one that takes Polaroids of you while you sleep and leaves the pictures on your pillow. It may also be the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. There, I said it.