Sinister Movie Review: disturbing relentless horror
Sinister is a disturbing movie that piles horror upon horror, with eerie snuff footage and a brutal soundtrack that builds to an ending that, if not shocking, certainly offers no respite for the viewer. In short, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years.
Sinister concerns a writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), who has moved to a new house with his wife, 12-year-old son and young daughter. He writes true crime novels, and has moved to this particular house to research a bizarre murder and disappearance – an entire family drugged, tied up, then hung from a tree in the back yard, the youngest daughter vanished without a trace. Tracy (Ellison’s wife, played by Juliet Rylance) doesn’t realize that they’ve actually moved into the house where the murders occurred.
Ellison soon discovers a box of 8mm film reels in the attic, each one innocuously labeled. “Family BBQ.” “Sleepy Time.” “Family Hanging Out.” “Yardwork.” As he watches them, he discovers that each film documents the murder of an entire family.
The films themselves are a major part of the horror of Sinister. The 8mm stock gives them a very gritty, snuff film feel, and no punches are pulled when it comes to offing entire families (kids included) on-screen. Even the most jaded horror fan is going to feel disturbed watching them. The movie also plays a clever trick – at times, as Ellison is watching the films, it becomes too much for him. He looks away at just about the point when most viewers would. This creates something of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre effect, where nothing truly graphic is shown on-screen, but you may remember seeing it all the same.
As Ellison uncovers the connections between the murders, he realizes that a strange figure and symbol appears in all of the films. A professor eventually provides the necessary exposition, explaining that the symbol represents an ancient demon that eats children. This is something I’ve grown to dislike about American horror films, this frantic urge to explain everything. We can’t just have a mysterious evil entity, no. Time to crack open the Monster Manual and learn that it’s all couched in Native American folklore, Judeo-Christian mythology, or, as in this case, some kind of vague Babylonian/pagan legend.
Ellison’s actions become increasingly ludicrous as the movie goes on. They seemed illogical to me, at times. There were classic moments of, “Get out of the house you idiot!” But I realized that part of the story is how the movie manipulates your feelings about Ellison. At first, he seems driven to write a good book, recapture his past glory, and uncover the truth behind a mysterious murder. He doesn’t call the police because they’ve proven themselves to be intolerant jerks. His wife seems shrill and unsupportive. But with each terrible decision, your sympathy shifts away from Ellison. He morphs into an alcoholic clod, driven by a strange mania to research the mystery, regardless of the toll it takes on his family.
The best part of Sinister is, without a doubt, the sound editing. I’m not talking about violin stingers that signal a jump scare. I mean, the sounds in this film were a major part of the horror. Each snuff film is accompanied by a piece of music. Each one was intensely difficult to listen to – discordant synth drones, staticky drums, backmasked voices, off-kilter rhythms. It’s difficult to explain, but several of them made me physically uncomfortable. It was an amazing effect.
At other times, as Ellison is blundering around his darkened house (real, disorienting, claustrophobic darkness, by the way – none of this “blue light masquerading as nighttime stuff), the sounds create tension and unreality. Are you hearing atmospherics, or the weird music from the films playing in Ellison’s head? At one point, the soundtrack is filled with a low drone. You don’t even notice it until a key moment, when the drone stutters and stops. In this case, the resulting silence was the sound effect. Honestly, the Oscar for sound editing is a cinch for this crew.
Taken as a whole, Sinister is a brilliant horror film. It creates a lasting, oppressive feeling of dread and unavoidable doom. Yet if you stare too long at some of the individual parts, you’ll find flaws. Bughuul, the strange demonic creature, looks like a Juggalo on a Faygo bender. The “creepy children slowly turning to face you” trope falls flat. One of the sheriff’s deputies veers dangerously close to caricature.
But mostly, this one scared the crap out of me.
[Note: The second feature at the drive-in when I saw this was The House at the End of the Street. We left about 45 minutes in because it was so boring.]