T he trend nowadays is to pick an obscure deity from an ancient civilization and create a mythos around it. That is exactly what Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill did when they imagined a world where a crime novelist finds a box of Super-8 films Eventually the home movies will lead him to realize something more is going on rather than the serial murder of several families and the disappearance of one of their children. The concept is interesting and compelling and Ethan Hawke (“Gattica,” “The Daybreakers”) brings the character of Ellison Oswalt to life as a novelist desperately trying to make a comeback. Juliet Rylance (“Animal”) is Ellison’s wife Tracy, Michael Hall D'Addario plays their 12-year-old son Trevor and Clare Foley (“Win Win”) is their daughter Ashley. Although Derrickson, Cargill, and producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse productions were hoping for a PG-13 rating, "Sinister," however, does deserves the R rating it has. “Sinister” is about 10 minutes shy of 2 hours.
The horror begins immediately with a scratchy Super-8 film showing a tall tree with a family who has their hands tied behind their backs, bags over their heads, and a noose around their necks standing underneath it. The limb raises and the family’s legs start their death dance. “Sinister” is a dark film, both cinematically and spiritually. There are only a few daylight scenes, but for the most part, the film takes place in single-story ranch style house. The setting is atypical in the horror film genre, in that it isn't some old two story house with a dark, dank, basement. Instead, this house has an attic. The setting is in rural Pennsylvania, and the Oswalt family is moving in. Ellison and his wife discuss his latest novel and questions if they are living, a few doors down from a crime scene. Ellison stammers and says no. What he doesn't tell her is that they are moving into the house of the family that was hung.
After meeting the gruff local Sheriff, Ellison realizes immediately that he is not welcomed in the town and the sheriff believes that Ellison’s work diminishes theirs. The deputy, on the other hand is somewhat star struck. The family has gone through some tough times. Ellison’s last two books were financial and commercial failures. His last best seller, "Kentucky Blood," was over 10 year prior and their finances are dwindling. His two kids, Trevor and Ashley are typical kids who must adjust to their dad’s constant moving from one crime scene to another in the hopes of regaining his past glory. Uprooted from their friends, the Oswalt children have to deal with kids who eventually tell them the story of the horrors that took place in their house. Ellison, however, only cares about his career.
Wearing a nerdy green sweater, while unpacking stuff in the attic, Ellison comes across a box forgotten by previous owners filled with apparently family films and conveniently a Super-8 projector to play them on. It actually looked like the one I owned when I was a teenager. At dinner, filmed in the dark, with only a single light, the family discusses the move, the need to sell their old house, and the two most important rules of the Oswalt household. First, no kids allowed in daddy’s office, and daddy must lock his office when he isn't in there. Ellison gets to work immediately, his office is set up, looking like an FBI command center with maps on the wall, pictures of victims and unsubs (unknown subject) with colored yarn stretched from one picture to another.
Throughout the film, Ellison watches each of the movies, usually at night, when things usually like to go bump. “Sinister” is reminiscent of Stephan King’s “The Shinning” in that the story involves a writer who moves into a unfamiliar place to write his next novel, and throughout the film Ellison, like Jack drinks more and writes less. Jack and Ellison make poor choices throughout their perspective story arcs, which lead to their undoing. Ellison sets up the projector, drapes a cloth on the wall, and looks through the selection of films. Should Ellison watch the film with the innocuous title “Family Hanging Around '11,” or should he watch “Pool Party '66,” or “BBQ '79,” how about “Lawn Work '86,” or even “Sleepy Time '98.” He picks the first one. What he sees is so ghastly, he gets out his glass, some ice and a bottle of whiskey.
n these types of horror films, the main characters isn’t the only ones that are affected, the children are too. In the “Amityville Horror,” Missy, the kid in that film had an imaginary friend named “Jodie,” and “Captain Howdy” was Regan’s friend in “The Exorcist,” and Danny Torrance from “The Shining” had "Tony." In ‘Sinister,” Trevor has extreme night terrors, and Ashley, who likes to color on her wall (with parental permission, of course), starts drawing pictures of Stephanie (Victoria Leigh), the murdered family’s missing girl-child. While each of the kid’s “imaginary” friends could be explained psychologically, rather than supernaturally, however, as we all know the former explanation eventually is ruled out. One can say the same for the each of the main character as they drink and slowly devolve.
Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) starts out hopeful about regaining his fame as an author, but slowly withdraws into himself as he contemplates what kind of horror he got himself and his family into. Not the typical crime story he usually investigates, Ellison begins to realize quickly that he messed up by moving into that particular house. A pivotal point in the film comes when Ellison, after watching the second Super-8 film, succumbs to his own hubris, and decides not to call the police but to continue researching the grisly murders himself.
Each of the Super-8 films that Ellison watches with his glass of whiskey depicts a family’s gruesome murder. The titles are far creepier than we first thought. Within each of the films, there are images that are more disturbing than the murders themselves. Ellison digitally films the Super-8 movies so he can research them on his computer. He discovers children’s drawings of the murders before they happen. Also drawn on the walls is a character called Mr. Boogie. And depicted in the home movies is a drawing that looks almost like a Pentagram. Deputy So-and-So played by James Ransone ("Inside Man, “The Next Three Days"), the star struck deputy from the beginning comes into help Ellison and the audience lighten up as the story descends deeper into the darkness. As an investigative source (he researches certain crimes for Ellison), the deputy also becomes a friend to Ellison. After one particularly rough night, Ellison confides in him that he doesn't believe in ghosts but he has the feeling that the house is haunted. Ellison asks the deputy if he believes in any of that otherworldly stuff. Deputy So-and-So’s, reply is not only insightful, but comical as well, “Are you kidding me, I believe in all of that stuff, I wouldn't sleep one night in this place. Are you nuts?.” The deputy also recommends Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio) from the university as an occult crime expert who the state police in for some of the weirder stuff, to examine the pentagram looking symbol.
D'Onofrio’s part is small, but important in that he provides the Bughuul mythos. Bughuul, a minor Babylonian deity, needs souls of human children to survive. The deity lures or tricks the kids into the netherworld. Worship of deity includes blood sacrifice or the eating of children. Drawing on the theme that once you watch a particular satanic or occult image, you have opened a door that allows evil to pass through. Similar in theme to “The Ring,” when one views the images on the video that was conjured up from below by Samara – your fate is sealed. The same goes for the Oswalt family. As Dr. Jonas explains, the early Christians believed that Bagul actually lived in the images themselves and that they were gateways into his realm. That he would take possession of those who saw the images and cause them to do terrible things. Or, in some cases, he can even abduct the viewer into the images themselves. Children exposed to the images were especially vulnerable to Bughuul's possession and abduction.
"I like that you made the movies longer, they are better this way.” - Ashley Oswalt
Juliet Rylance plays the loyal wife, who is coming to her wits end as her husband begins to unwind, and her son’s night terrors jump up a notch. Michael Hall D'Addario as Trevor does well as the preteen son; however, the standout is Clare Foley as Ashley. Foley’s performance throughout the film, imbues a certain sense of innocence that in the last scenes of the film, turn creepy and unsettling. Similar in function of providing the viewer with information and sets the tone of the film is Fred Thompson as the Sheriff. Thompson bookends the Oswalt’s stay in his cozy little stay in his town.
Christopher Young provides a score intermixed with selections ranging from the experimental musical collective from Norway, “Ulver,” to the dark ambient style of “Aghast,” and electronic music of the two brothers from Scotland, “Boards of Canada.” While Chris Norr follows in the cinematic footsteps of Gordon Willis, who brought his dark singularly lit photography style to films such as “The Godfather” and “Klute,” Norr rarely films Ellison in full light as if a spiritual shadow hangs over the man.
Derrickson pulls together all the tropes of a horror film and presents them in his distinctive minimalist style. Starting with the element of missing children, he ventures into the darkness, loud bumps in the night, disturbing music, inanimate objects moving on their own, simple but effective visual effects, a few jump scares thrown in for effect, demonic symbols (a scorpion and a snake) a compelling story, and a demon that the pulls the whole film together. “Sinister” is flawed in some areas, but not by much. Ellison’s refusal to turn on the light but rather just use the flashlight on his phone, or going into the attic at night, are some of the poor choices that Derrickson and Cargill have Ellison make. But then again without these “flaws,” there wouldn't be much of a film. Overall, “Sinister” is worth renting and munching on a bowl of popcorn on a dark rainy night.
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Staring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, James Ransone, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley
Director: Scott Derrickson
Producer(s): Jason Blum, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Writer: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 10/12/2012