Sinister is a film I have written about prior, but have never taken the opportunity to sit down and reflect on, especially years after the fact. The film was directed by Scott Derrickson, a director whose name will likely ring bells for many Marvel fans, as he was at the helm for the successful Doctor Strange film in 2016. Before finding blockbuster success though, Derrickson dipped his toes in the horror genre, directing Hellraiser: Inferno. For those of you who have not dove fully into the Clive Barker franchise, in my opinion, Inferno was actually one of the best of the series, and is certainly the best of the direct-to-video installments. Since then, he has directed Deliver Us From Evil and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, both decent (not great) features if I recall, but it was this film, Sinister, that really made me a believer in Derrickson’s talent.
With a script written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the Blumhouse feature was a success at the box office, garnering nearly ninety million off a paltry three million dollar budget. The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics and audience-members, and was successful enough to garner a sequel a few years later. The film comprises itself with a cast that includes Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Fred Thompson, and Vincent D’Onofrio.
The concept and story of Sinister are the stuff of nightmares, offering a simple, but effective explanation for its antagonist – a pagan deity named Bughuul (or Mr. Boogie). Ethan Hawke’s character Ellison Oswalt is a true-crime novelist who desires to reclaim the fame he once had a decade prior with his best seller Kentucky Blood. This inspires him to move his family into a house where a family was once murdered in particularly grisly fashion – all hanged by ropes on a tree in their backyard. Ellison discovers a box of videotapes in the attic labeled as home movies, and uncovers they are, in fact, snuff films created by the unseen murderer. Ellison soon finds himself tormented by the mysterious entity and his own inner demons as well.
I am not often startled by films any more. Whether it be Readers Digested or any of my earlier projects, through heavy exposure, I have mostly desensitized myself to horror and the choke-hold it once had on me as a child. That said, Sinister is one of the only films in my adult life that has actually unnerved me, due mostly because the sound work and imagery of the videotapes, which were simple, but very effective.
The story line is familiar – sharing tropes and character developments akin to other horror fare like The Shining, for instance, but I found Ethan Hawke’s portrayal and the presentation itself elevated this film and allowed it both individuality and distinction. The cinematography is polished and, also, knows when to let it hangout and show its grime and grit, and I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of the Bughuul character. Some are not as sold by the character’s appearance, as I understand. The character’s appearance suggests he could be coming out on stage with Corey Taylor to play Snuff at any minute, but I actually like that and think the look is very unique and memorable.
The deceptive simplicity and concept of Sinister, accomplishing a good, old-fashioned horror story is a lot of the reason I was so sold by it. It checks off a lot of boxes and does so very well, both in-terms of technique and direction, as well as acting and atmosphere, and sometimes it can be difficult for a horror film to juggle all of that without at least dropping a few balls in the attempt.
The only big criticism I have with the film is the end – which features a jump scare for the audience. Let me be clear, I am not as aggressively against jump scares as many people are. I do not enjoy when they are used as a crutch, but I do not mind them if they are used sparingly and effectively to enhance immersion or build suspense in a film. That’s a tool at the filmmaker’s disposal and I know firsthand that it can evoke a response. What I dislike is jump scares that are not done to the characters, but, in fact, serve as a wink and a nod to the viewer, especially in a horror film as serious as this film was. The scene is short, but it bothered me a lot, and, in fact, it serves as a glaring stain on what was otherwise a great horror film. This is something Blumhouse used to do an awful lot, but I think they have since mostly learned from.
I highly recommend Sinister if you haven’t seen it. Not only did I like the film, but I loved the film, and I consider it as one of the best horrors I have seen in the turn of the millennium. Although the series was not able to flourish the way I would have liked, thwarted by an abysmal followup, it is the type of film that stands on its own and feels complete.