Everyone loves haunted houses, unless you live in them and your whole family dies. The first part is the main plot point of Sinister, in which one-hit-wonder true crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (a name that absolutely screams “I write books about mass murders”) has had failure after failure, and has decided to move his family into the very house outside which a family was hanged years earlier. As is customary with these horror films, it takes two quiet scenes, one discovery and a family argument before creepy things start happening. Ellison finds an old box labeled “Home Videos” in a box in his attic, filled with old Super 8 film reels and a projector. Ellison realizes that this book could be his next hit once he sees that each of the reels contains a snuff film of the brutal murders of a handful of families.
Upon closer inspection, Ellison notices a demonic face and occult symbol in each of the films. Luckily, a professor at the local college not only is a specialist in the occult, he’s also usually available on Skype to answer questions. After some digging, the professor informs Ellison that the face and image belong to the demon Bagul, who gets his kicks by eating childrens’ souls. Talk about a dream home.
For the most part, Sinister is wonderfully tense. Scott Derrickson establishes a slow burn of dread and horror that continuously ramps up throughout the movie, bolstered by increasingly erratic cinematography and events that get more and more unpleasant. Much has already been said about the Super 8 footage that Ellison encounters in the attic. The praise is not unfounded. These segments are among the film’s most chilling. The film opens with an unflinching view as a family is hanged, and each one after that is creepier than the last.
The movie’s sound design is second to none. This is a master class in edgy sound editing and mixing, with a soundtrack that absolutely gets under the skin. Said soundtrack blends creepy notes with the scratching sound of the projector, the eerie growlings of Bagul and, during the Super 8 segments, incredibly upsetting music. It’s a harmony of sound effects and music that got to me almost more than the images did, but the entire package working as one machine is what really sells the fear. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something a little off-putting about a family being tied up and dragged underwater to a faintly cheery tune.
Best of all, most of the jump scares absolutely feel earned. There are a couple of cheap ones, but nearly all of them have a great buildup and satisfying finish (…) that really put me on edge in the moments following. The best actually have no buildup at all, simply because similar situations earlier in the movie did not have a jump scare, effectively easing the audience into a false sense of security.
The movie’s ending goes on just a bit too long after the big reveal that ties everything together. It felt the need to not only reveal what was going on, but actually show the entire aftermath as if the audience wouldn’t be able to envision it. It kind of dampens the shock of the reveal and instead of leaving the audience with a chilling feeling, slowly weans them off of the shock by drawing out the explanation and tying up nearly every loose end. It would have been far more effective if they had cut out maybe three or four minutes of the finale and tightened up the final scene.
By the end of the film, I was a broken man, barely realizing that I was curled up in my seat with my hands clutching my face. Sinister chips away at the nerves and the sanity, leaving me a nervous wreck by the end of the film. While I can’t say that it had the profound lasting effect on me that Insidious (from the same producer) did, Sinister was one hell of a ride while it lasted. It doesn’t bring too many new ideas to the table, but in a time when most horror films try and fail to frighten their audience, Sinister spends 110 minutes filling its audience with breathless dread.
Take a Drink: every time you see Bagul’s face.
Take a Drink: every time Ellison gets distracted from working.
Take a Drink: whenever someone in the the family has an argument.
Do a Double: one word: lawnmower. It’ll make sense later.