Directed: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Perhaps viewers have become so accustomed to unforseen conclusions and twisting climaxes in their films that when a narrative plays out in a linear, predictable fashion, it’s almost disappointing. Or maybe this in itself is a twist; precisely because we don’t see the plain-Jane ending playing out as much in modern cinema, is it unexpected when it eventually does transpire? I digress.
I have a soft spot for films where a struggling writer is the chief protagonist; Sinister immediately struck a chord with me with a dashing Ethan Hawke starring as Ellison Oswalt – an arrogant and struggling crime-novelist who moves his family to a murder-house as an attempt to jump-start his writing career. After finding a gold-mine in a mysterious, abandoned box of old beta-max snuff tapes, he begins to unravel the secret he’s there to write about.
From the outset Sinister is chilling; a rather unsettling snuff clip of a family of four hanging from a tree in a suburban backyard opens the thriller. And it’s just that – unsettling. It’s not particularly frightening, but there is a deeply unnerving feeling transmitted in this scene. Despite whatever the viewer’s preconceptions may be prior to watching the film, one is confronted with this image with no explanation, no music, no credits. It communicates a clear message from film maker to audience member: you’re not in control of what you’re seeing.
It becomes apparent as the film progresses that Hawke’s character Oswalt is conniving and egotistical; capable of both lying to his wife and family and also dismissive of their concerns – notable is the naming of the local law-enforcement by Oswalt as “Deputy So-and-So”. The theme of substance abuse is discussed briefly but not enough to develop and reveal more facets of Oswalt’s character and his interaction with his wife. Sinister is essentially an Ethan Hawke film – which is chiefly due to an unknown cast being filled around the Hollywood star – and leaves one feeling unfulfilled. Time perhaps could have been well spent on developing the family, yet this is forgone in favour of more scenes of Oswalt watching snuff-films.
There are a few issues with pacing. Some I’ve spoken with felt the film was uneventful; while my interest was piqued for two acts, it wasn’t hard to see why Sinister could come off as “boring” for the most part. It simply floated too neutrally between action, backstory or character development – leaving none of the three fully explored.
To make a broad observation of the modern horror genre – jump scares are almost a necessity in having appeal to a teenage market. Sinister’s shortfall may very well be that it succumbs to the trap of luring this audience with an overtly shocking trailer as bait – which lessens the impact of some of the more confronting images upon actual viewing. One play-through of the trailer and I was hooked, yet almost every piece of action in Sinister was spoiled by this trailer, which was very disappointing.
The evil deity intent on haunting Ethan Hawke and his nuclear family is revealed too much. The concept is incredibly interesting – an obscure, evil-willed spirit which has roots in millennia-old mythology and folklore is a sure-fire way to intrigue this movie-goer, and left me begging for more exposition. Who what why when how? Whilst not expecting complete answers, it’s far too easy to leave these issues up to audience speculation and not spend screen-time dwelling on possible conclusions.
What unravelled Sinister for me.
Children in horror storytelling traditionally represent innocence; ill-will directed at children is designed to make one fidget and inspire a dreadful feeling of helplessness. It is a delicate line to walk when spinning a yarn where a child becomes possessed by a demon, as very few will come close to Friedkin’s depiction of this feeling in The Exorcist. A great deal of the success and believability of this portrayal in horror flicks comes down to the acting ability of the child cast; if the young actor/actress is not convincing, it effectively kills the suspense and atmosphere right then and there – which is nothing against the kids in these roles, simply an observation of how difficult the right balance can be to achieve.
Upon seeing both Sinister and “sister” film Insidious, which share the same producers, it is evident that the films also share a great deal more. Both discuss the possession of children by evil “demons”, both have these children commit violent acts on screen where they appear to be invincible, both have lack-lustre conclusions where the father is either killed or tainted. The parallels continue even down to scenes of jarring “awkward humour” and banter the audience is expected to giggle through.
Sinister was still an enjoyable film and one I’m eager to watch again. It succeeds in creating and sustaining an incredibly dark mood and inflicting horrifying imagery upon the viewer. The device of snuff films and seeing a human reaction to these films is an effective mechanism in seizing one’s attention, and left you sitting in the researcher seat along with Hawke. The largest issue is that you feel absolutely no sympathy for either Oswalt or his family as you simply do not feel connected to any of them. It is in essence, watching a snuff film. Perhaps this was the film makers’ intent all along.
IMDB – 6.7/10
Metacritic – 53/100
Rotten Tomatoes – 64%