After the brilliant Cabin in the Woods came out earlier this year and skewered pretty much every other horror movie ever made, I found myself wondering if filmmakers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard had broken the horror genre. Could horror movies ever be scary again after every technique and trope in the genre had been painstakingly deconstructed and mercilessly mocked? Well, the answer to the question comes in the form of Sinister from director Scott Derrickson, and that answer is a resounding “yes!” Sinister is one of those rare horror movies that (mostly) eschews cheap thrills and opts instead for instilling a sense of lingering dread in its audience. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you wanting to make sure that your home security lights are working and that all of your doors are locked after you get home from the cinema.
Right from the start, Sinister provides a big hint that it’s a cut above the rest, because Ethan Hawke plays the main character, an alcoholic true crime novelist laboring over his next big project. Hawke hasn’t enjoyed the most celebrated career in Hollywood, but he’s always picked interesting projects and turned in reliable performances; looking at his filmography, one gets the impression that he’s never cynically accepted a gig solely for a paycheck. With this movie, his reputation on that count should remain intact.
The film opens with grainy Super 8 footage of four people, hoods over their heads, nooses around their necks, arms bound behind their backs, standing beneath a tree. An unseen hand cuts a tree limb; as the limb breaks free and falls, the four figures ascend into the air, kicking in slow motion. Eventually, they stop kicking. Cut to the present day, and formerly celebrated author Ellison (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a cozy suburban home. The backyard contains a large tree with a freshly sawn off limb.
As the story progresses, we learn that Ellison solved a serial murder case ten years earlier and released a novel to popular and critical acclaim; but that was over a decade ago, and his two subsequent efforts have been abject failures. He desperately needs a hit, and in his moment of need he finds a box of Super 8 films in the attic of his new home/crime scene. Each reel is innocuously titled: “Hanging Out With the Family,” “BBQ,” “Pool Party,” etc.
As Ellison throws himself into watching the reels, he sees bland footage of different families juxtaposed with the grizzly murders of each family. Each group is silently massacred in a different, yet disturbingly matter-of-fact, manner; upon a few more viewings, a grotesque figure begins to appear in the background. During these sequences sound designer Dane A. Davis and composer Christopher Young work hand-in-hand to emphasize the on-screen horror with one of the most disturbing soundtracks in recent memory, a brooding, pulsating piece of work that manages to burrow beneath the listener’s skin and stay there. Director Derrickson sidesteps cheap gore effects during these pieces, instead allowing the expertly crafted sound design to unsettle the viewer.
Not that the movie skimps on visual horror, either, but for much of Sinister, Derrickson manages to evoke chills through suggestion. The monster of this tale works best when he’s seen only from a distance or tucked away in the periphery. But as if to avoid the ire of casual movie goers, Derrickson eventually delivers the goods, and we get a good look at the film’s monsters. They’re gruesome and unsettling, but not as frightening as the imagination. At this point, an otherwise masterful horror movie begins to lose a little of its steam.
Vincent D’Onofrio turns up as a geeky occultist to fill Ellison in on the nature of the homicidal ghoul. The unnamed monster gets a silly name that sounds like it was plucked from one of the Ghostbusters movies, and we discover he’s a “pagan deity” that lives in images and feeds on the flesh of innocent children. Pagan deities really get a bad rap in Hollywood.
By eventually showing the unknowable, inscrutable monster of the first half of the movie and then explaining his history and motivations, a damn near perfect movie is somewhat marred. The great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft insisted that the oldest and strongest kind of fear was fear of the unknown; nothing is greater than the horrors that can be conjured up by the human mind. Though Lovecraft was prone to over-explain his own horror creations, his stories worked best when the origin and motivations of the monster were left unexplained. If only the screenwriter of this movie had taken that lesson to heart, I believe he would have had an utterly perfect horror screenplay on his hands.
As it is, Sinister is great piece of genre entertainment, managing to be both familiar and refreshing. Unlike many contemporary Hollywood horror flicks which are either content to offer CGI-laden, watered-down, PG-13 scares, or alternatively, wallow in bloody, sense-numbing excess, Sinister offers deep-seated, atmospheric chills. If anything, it’s a spiritual sister to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant little horror movie about another alcoholic hack writer. Kubrick constructed a model for any subsequent filmmakers hoping to make great supernatural horror films, and Derrickson successfully adheres to that model here. Anyone concerned that the horror genre had been broken (and apparently I’m not the only one) can rest easy (or rather uneasy) knowing that a movie like Sinister exists.