“Even I’m not old enough to know what happened”
I like me a good horror film generally because their filmmakers find a freedom from the genre to create imaginative aesthetics. Rarely does one end up disturbing me to the point where I inch up to the edge of my seat and literally beg for more, though. Even knowing what’s going to happen—I guessed Sinister‘s ending as soon as the first breadcrumb dropped to foreshadow the method to the madness—my interest sometimes refuses to wane simply because I need the gruesome details. And when you open your film with a Super 8 projection of four people being hung to death from a tree in real time, your audience is either going to quickly check out or perk up. Maybe my enjoyment level marks me as a sadist, but I was riveted from frame one.
Not since The Fourth Kind have I been affected in the way director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have affected me. Sure, I’ve seen a few psychologically rough films that eat your soul, but straight horror flicks almost always have an uncanny ability to leave me wanting. If I’m completely honest, this one does too to a point. There are a couple scenes screaming genre cliché and the ending does prove rather unsurprising despite being the perfect and logical finish, but as a whole there isn’t that much to disparage. Something about Chris Norr‘s cinematography zooming into the action in an almost ritualistic way adds a dimension I wasn’t expecting. And the sound of the projector clicking against the sharply cut action spooling the film entails can do nothing but cultivate an uneasy air.
Sinister is a tonally perfect embodiment of its title with an awesomely creepy entity of evil artistically built to deliver nightmares. It’s another example of the “don’t look at the images or you’ll be next” trope mixed with a bit of demonic possession and haunted house fun, yet it skews just far enough to appear uniquely fresh. Because the plot doesn’t hit us over the head with the supernatural right away, we’re allowed to ease into the paranormal at the same pace as our lead. A true-crime novelist in search of the same astronomical success his debut provided before two devastating failures, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) uncovers cold hard facts. But even he can’t ignore the strange occurrences around him after delving into a box of home movies found in his new attic—and neither can we.
Taking up residence in the home of the murdered family he’s writing about, clues to the Bughuul’s—read Boogeyman—power are ever-present. Between malevolent creatures like a scorpion and a snake finding their way into the Oswalt’s attic and the strange collection of “snuff” films left begging to be watched, the pieces are meticulously set. And just as Ellison can’t peel his eyes from the horrific depictions of the homicidal acts on celluloid, we too become drawn to the escalating carnage. Fire, water, knives, and a misguided complacency act as weapons while the eerie visage of the Bughuul stamps its reflection in each. We know what to expect and yet each cringe, frightful gasp, and terrified turn from the camera courtesy of Hawke is felt so our nerves turn as ragged as his.
A family man himself with two young children, one must anticipate Ashley (Clare Foley), Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), or both ending up embroiled in the horror. Missing children stolen by the Bughuul arrive lifeless and cracked as their souls are consumed and we worry the Oswalts are next. The boy wanders off in fits of seizure-like spells while the girl paints her walls with splatters of red dripping over unicorns. Either one could be susceptible to what their father has unleashed and until he wakes to the knowledge he has gone farther than he can handle, no one is safe. His wife Tracy’s (Juliet Rylance) trepidation and the local Sheriff’s (Fred Dalton Thompson) unwillingness to assist are completely justified, but Ellison’s passionate desire to get back on top refuses to heed any warning.
Hawke is quite literally our conduit into the violence, unable to stop so that we too can continue on. We appreciate his attempt at finding answers despite knowing his motives are selfish and we hope he may discover a way to end the viscous cycle. Helped by a deputy petitioning to have his name in the new book’s acknowledgements, James Ransone‘s portrayal of the not quite bumbling but not quite sharp policeman adds some welcome humor to the otherwise suffocating atmosphere. They volunteer for the unsavory task of unearthing new historical facts, but it’s Ellison who seals his fate with the flip of a switch while the deputy watches from afar. Oswalt is alone and the Bughuul craves his attention.
Derrickson and Cargill—the former erasing the bad taste his Day the Earth Stood Still remake left—have painstakingly crafted an occult mythology that serves their goal of shocking us with an unapologetic series of ghastly deaths. Rather than make us slog through a litany of expendable characters, though, the murders are shown posthumously to not fracture our interest in the Oswalts. We yearn to know what’s behind it all and thankfully don’t have a revolving door of victims to distract from that goal. Sinister imprisons us in Ellison’s house as his mind trapped itself in the research. Everything we need is within those walls and everything we see is through his eyes. The imagery might be torturous and the depiction of child violence abhorrent, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
 (L-R) JULIET RYLANCE, MICHAEL HALL D’ADDARIO and ETHAN HAWKE star in ETHAN HAWKE star in SINISTER Photo: Phil Caruso © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 CLARE FOLEY stars in SINISTER. Photo by Phil Caruso © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
 ETHAN HAWKE and JAMES RANSONE star in SINISTER. Photo by Phil Caruso © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.