This Film is Just Plain Evil
A Film Review of Sinister
By: Lawrence Napoli
“Found footage” films have all but oversaturated the horror genre in Hollywood recently and while this review acknowledges the fact that its intermittent use throughout Sinister is an absolute strength, “found footage” is not to be considered an instant win for any film. Let’s also not split hairs about the rationale behind its rise in popularity. From the production perspective, “found footage” continues to spread like wildfire because the reported budgets for some of the most successful films in this category continue to shrink exponentially. Economic efficiency, more so than quality, aesthetics, relevance and social commentary, is what Hollywood’s about these days and despite the allure of the blockbuster film, “found footage” continues to self promote as a reliable cog in the assembly line mind set of studios.
Oh God, I hope this isn't Cloverfield!
Sinister is a terrifyingly morbid exploration into the fascination with the depraved, vile and graphic imagery of live murder caught on film. It’s one of those human nature situations where we are all stunned and disgusted by the train wreck, but are somehow compelled to continue watching. This film, however, is quite clear about taking this phenomena and turning it into a morality tale (ooo, big shock there!) where those who behave irresponsibly get punished by otherworldly circumstance. Writer/director Scott Derrickson is not reinventing the wheel with Sinister, but uses the narrative horror structure to highlight the “found footage” in order to maximize the terror on screen. For the most part, this film will look and feel like your average horror flick, but then the audience is introduced to the first (of many) super 8mm murders and the intensity of the story shoots through the roof. Sinister also attempts to be a paranormal investigation film, but I found the main character’s efforts in this regard to be moot. The scares and suspense do not come from the investigation, but from the psychological torture and metaphysical danger the protagonist subjects himself to as a direct result of less than honorable ambitions. Sinister is a story that successfully blends realism with fantasy by taking great pains to not abuse visual effects to reveal the supernatural until the last possible moment. Despite the presence of several conventions (children, possession, isolation, morality tale), this film strikes a chord and is far more terrifying than most contemporary (American) horror films.
Invesitgative journalists get into this for the money, right?
This film claims to be budgeted at around $3 million dollars which is interesting if one observes the star studded cast of what would otherwise be described as a small, indie-horror flick. Names like Fred Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke are all film and TV vets from various genres and none have ever been identified with horror. At the same time none of these men are exactly monopolizing the limelight in LaLa Land either. Still, these actors would all demand significant salaries for big studio or network television projects and it is surprising to find this many interested in working for scale (a.k.a. for free) on the same production. Of the three, only Ethan Hawke is truly featured as he plays the protagonist Ellison Oswalt, a non-fiction writer who is desperate to research a new murder case to get his writing career back on track. I was extremely impressed with Hawke’s performance because the man sold sincerity in every scene. This is the kind of film that is the furthest from a “paycheck” for an A-Lister, but Hawke has always had a strong footing in the realm of indie productions. He obviously had a genuine interest in this story and it reflects in his presence on screen. Who knew Ethan Hawke could do horror?
He's scared. The audience is scared. Mission accomplished.
Fred Thompson is featured to a lesser extent playing a sheriff who interprets Oswalt’s novels as throwing decent police work under the bus. Honestly, any elder thespian could have produced the grizzled, don’t-mess-with-this-town attitude that Thompson masterfully produced in limited opportunities, but his presence added legitimacy to this film. Vincent D’Onofrio is criminally underused as his only appearances are limited to a few web-cam dialogue sessions with Ethan Hawke. D’Onofrio is one of those unique actors who can deliver great, charismatic performances without the benefit of Brad Pitt-like looks. His contributions to this film seem like a last minute favor that got cashed in by Scott Derrickson, but it paid off because D’Onofrio can make reading the phonebook look like compelling footage. I wasn’t as impressed with the rest of the cast as Juliet Rylance’s chemistry with Ethan Hawke was spotty at best and the performances of the children: Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario were easily the most forgettable in any horror film using children as a focal point for supernatural phenomena.
Without question, the dumbest moment in this film. Thankfully, it's the only one.
Sinister is a well made, suspense/horror film that was legitimately creepy. There were points closer to the end of the film where I felt the need to simply close my eyes not out of fear, but out of disgust for the volume of executions the audience is subjected to. The super 8mm murders are not particularly gory, but the fact that each execution is preceded by brief surveillance footage of each family enjoying each other’s company adds a level of perversion that I was not prepared for and never got used to. I would not qualify this film as a hard “visual” R, but certainly as a no holds barred R for content. This is not the horror film you sneak the kids in for and depending on the individual’s sensitivities, may be one to avoid entirely for adults if you find the concept of families being executed on screen as too much to handle. Sinister pushes the boundaries and this is normally something I call for in filmmaking, but I’d be lying if I denied that part of me would have rather skipped this film all together.