Sometimes, lately - often, I don’t want to write a review after I watch the movie. I know, I know, how could that be? The thing is, as Keith and I trudge through horror island and take in as many films as possible, it’s hard to stay optimistic. Even scrolling through the instant streaming selection of horror films on Netflix makes me doubt horror is worth saving at all. But then, after a series of horrible horror films, you finally land upon a gem and you actually want to write the review. This is that review. Up until yesterday, I told anyone I could grab that the last truly good horror film I’d seen was Drag Me to Hell, and that was in 2009. Now, thankfully, I can say the last truly good horror film I’ve seen is Sinister, released in 2012.
Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author who moves his family to a new town in order to research and write about a murder and disappearance that happened there. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to watch a horror film with an actual actor in it. Sure, I know I boast about Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but they were kids then, barely in the acting scene and certainly not the actors they are today. Ethan Hawke is a fantastic actor, and he did an incredible job in this film. It’s so much easier to suspend your disbelief and hop aboard the crazy horror train when the acting is good enough to convince you to. Hawke’s character, Ellison, is actually complex and it is engaging to watch him slowly unravel throughout the film. Ellison is desperate to write his next big hit novel, seeing as his first big hit was 10 years ago. His family is strapped for cash now, and he’s written a couple of books since his hit that were not successful. His desperation, coupled with his genuine devotion to attaining justice for this crime, results in a character the audience can believe in. Hawke is not the only actor in the film, and the rest of the cast is certainly adequate, but he carries the film and I couldn’t wait to board the crazy train with him once I realized how good he was.
Other great things about this film include the use of super 8 found footage and the music. Found footage is a big trend right now, and I don’t always love the way it’s used. Much like 3D, I think found footage can often be used as the scare instead of an enhancement to the scare. This film did a great job with the found footage and while it was a central aspect of the plot, it was in no way a crutch. The thing about found footage is it instantly increases the belief factor. Audiences tend to believe what’s happening on screen more if shown as found footage or with documentary-style camera movements. The premise is simple, horrific acts shown as a super 8 film are just more scary because they look like home movies, which remind the audience of their own personal home movies and make the horrific act more realistic. It is a way to connect with the audience and personalize their experience - that is, if it’s done correctly.
Connected to the found footage aspect of the film was the score. Never will I ever hear a film reel cycling through an old camera without thinking of this movie. The score perfectly complimented the scare; it didn’t race ahead of it and ruin it for you or lag so far behind that it missed it, it perfectly coincided with the fear the audience felt. The music was often just sounds or a couple of notes, but it kept me sufficiently creeped out. Horror films that aren’t full of the screams of teenagers have to fill the background with something else, and this film managed to fill it with creepy music, uncomfortable silence and everyday sounds that meant so much more.
Finally, the most important quality, the scare factor. I’m not naive enough to think that any film coming out this day and age will pack enough of a punch to send audiences screaming. But it is possible to leave someone with that shuddering feeling, and this film did that for me. Throughout the film, I became more and more tense, and even today, hours later, I still can’t quite shake the uncomfortable feeling it left me with. Sinister is a bit of a sleuth film; the audience follows Ellison through his research and tries to figure out what happened to this family and where the missing girl is, and that makes the movie much more scary. I was so busy trying to solve the riddle, I was lured into a false sense of security and the movie knocked me out of that every time I fell into it. Yet, I never learned my lesson. Even if the audience figures out the mystery, there’s more scare to be had. Sinister is creepy and evil and ominous - it is the perfect word to serve as the title for this film. This film is just that - it’s sinister.
There’s a lot of shitty horror on this island, trust me, we know. But Sinister is not one of them. A refreshing film that combines the perfect amount of mystery, horror and suspense, this film is certainly saving horror, one supernatural being at a time. Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep so well last night, and I’ve been watching over my shoulder all morning.
If you liked Sinister, you might also like The Possession, The Shining and Paranormal Activity.