For a while now there has been a regrettable trend with horror movies; overriding the necessity of plot and character arcs with perversely ingenious methods of inflicting excessive amounts of pain on hapless victims. It started with the eighties style ‘Slash and Dash’ flicks moving over time to the current propensity for what has been referred to as ‘torture porn’ exemplified by the ‘Saw’ franchise. Recently I have noticed a realignment of the genre back to the psychologically driven movies popular in the classic horror films of the forties. Initially I thought it was a few isolated filmmakers as tired of unfettered pain as many of us. It appears now there are sufficient examples of this return to dark mind games to justify a reexamination of the state of this venerable movie genre. A movie ideal as an example of this realignment of horror flicks is ‘Sinister’. This creative movie from by filmmaker Scott Derrickson co-written by C. Robert Cargill demonstrates artists obviously influenced by the same movies many of us did and came away with the desire to bring psychological horror back to its dominant place in the Cineplex. Sinister’ is not the kind of movie that the fans of ‘Saw’ or ‘Touristas’ are likely to enjoy; a compliment of the highest order in this context. Sinister’ goes back in time exemplifying the kind of horror suitable for a summer camp fire scary stories. One of the best elements of this film is how the filmmaker expertly blended the childlike frightening story with the adult sensibilities of a true psychological thriller.
In the classic campfire story there is always a plausible foundation of credibility to pull the audience into the story on a personalized manner. This is readily and efficiently achieved by opening the film with some homemade 8mm footage. Depicting a horrific sight; a family of four standing beneath the branch of a sturdy tree, hoods over their heads. You watch in terror as a hand reaches out sawing through a tie hanging the family too death. The time line slips ahead a few months focusing on Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moving into a house with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their two children, Ashley (Clare Foley), and slightly older Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario). Ellison is a writer whose career had started off well with his first well received novel only to slip in popularity with subsequent works. His primary genre is true crime, a field that has brought his writings some serve criticism from the police department, especially those directly involved with the cases used in the books. This is economically told to the audience when Ellison encounters a politely hostile local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson), admonishing home to stay away from recent local problems. After assuring the lawman he has no intension of writing a locally based book he returns back home were we discover that is precisely his intension. Much to Tracy’s consternation Ellison has done this before; up root the family to relocate to the site of some terrible murder to base a new book on it. She is tired of the town’s inevitable reaction and the darkness that inevitably pervades their lives during this period.
One the ingredients have been established the filmmaker, in the fashion of an expert chef, carefully turns up the heat allowing them to simmer and interact. Ellison has kept his reason for choosing that house to live; the tree in the back yard was the site of the family hanging previously shown in the home made movie. Soon an evil seems to pervade their home. Their son begins to experience serve night terrors while the paintings Ashley does on her bedroom walls make a decidedly dark twist. Ellison hopes the book based on the family hanging will put him back on top; best seller lists, talks shows and movie rights. Part of the mystery he needs to solve to guarantee is to solve the mystery of the fifth member of the family who disappeared without a trace. He engages the willing help of the deputy (James Ransone), who is anxious to get acknowledgement in the book. He discovers some chronologically links between this incident and similar deaths around the country. In each case the victim families lived in the home of a previous set of murder victims.as the atmosphere gets intensely creepy Ellison reaches out to academic in the field of the occult; Professor Jonas in an uncredited role portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio.
The gradual exposition of the basis for the evil occurrences is made clear. The 8mm movie depicts the horrible deaths of several families over a period of time; the urban myth of the snuff flick made real. In one of the segments Ellison notices a demonic figure watching as the deaths occur. Consulting with the professor points the witer in the direction of an evil spirit called Mr. Boogey. Artwork depicting him has gone back to the dark ages were it was believed just looking at his image could demonically infect a person. When Ashley draws a murderous scene on the wall and mentions a new invisible friend Ellison can barely repress his terror. Ellison moves but the deputy discovers that is the event that initiates the countdown to the family’s demise.
My enjoyment of the film noticeably waxed with subsequent viewings. Initially I was impressed with the obvious departure from the standard horror use of overt and copious blood and gore. Much of what is presented here is nicely cloaked in dark, grainy video that places much of the onus to generate the desired reaction in the recesses of the audience’s mind where it is most efficiently deployed. The directorial style of Scott Derrickson is remarkable. While some of the narrative fell prone to some confusion subsequent viewing lead me to the belief that might have been intentional. From the very first frame he set the stage for an extremely disturbing, a visually unsettling series of images meant to ensure the audience will proceed with viewing uncertain of the nature of the story. The muddled narrative serves to reinforce this feeling on an emotional level. It is unsettling, putting you in the disturbed mind set of the main character. In this way we have to be kept unsure of the events that surround you.
Audio Commentary With Director Scott Derrickson