Written By: Casey Powers
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thomas
When The Exorcist first opened in 1973 it was met with harsh criticism from the religious community. One of the most vocal opponents was evangelist Billy Graham who was quoted as saying that, “There is a power of evil in that film, in the fabric of the film itself,” and that “the Devil is in every frame of The Exorcist.” I bring up these quotes because they are what inspired Sinister. Screenwriters Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill said that they were intrigued by the concept that evil could exist in the very celluloid of a film, and that by simply watching the movie you are allowing that evil access to our world. And for that reason I have to thank Billy Graham for denouncing The Exorcist because it helped to inspire one of the scariest movies in recent years.
The story of Sinister follows true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) as he moves his family, without their knowledge, into the house where the previous occupants were hanged from a tree in the backyard. The entire family was killed except for the youngest daughter who was never found. Ellison believes that by solving the case and writing about it he can revive his dying career and reclaim the success he had when he first started writing ten years ago.
While investigating the house, Ellison finds a projector and a box of Super 8 films in the attic. He soon discovers that each movie is actually a snuff film in which entire families are executed in horrible and violent ways. Each of the films matches the same pattern of the case he is currently investigating. Every film has an entire family being murdered except for the youngest child who in every case has gone missing. After going over and over each film, Ellison begins to notice something even more disturbing than the crimes themselves. In the background of each movie, Ellison discovers a demonic figure observing the murders. After seeing this demon, aka Bughuul, aka Mr. Boogie, aka The Eater of Children, strange things begin to happen in the house. Bughuul begins to make more and more appearances in the real world, and slowly but surely Ellison begins to crack and the sense of danger begins to increase.
Overall this film is very effective at building up tension and making the audience dread what is going to happen next. Each of the snuff films escalates the violence and the most memorable scene in the film comes from the snuff film labeled “Yard Work.” I’ll let your imagination fill in what happens there.
One of the best elements this film utilizes is the great performance by Ethan Hawke. Hawke is scared when he needs to be and charming when he should be and believable when he makes the transition. His performance really sells the movie’s story. Ultimately Ellison is a victim of his own hubris and what the film makers called “Every writers worst nightmare.” Ellison is so obsessed with writing and his career that he is willing to sacrifice his family, both literally and figuratively, and Hawke does a great job of making the audience care about him. Even though he is a deeply flawed character, selfish and elitist, Ellison is able to get the viewer on his side. Which is a testament I believe to Hawke’s acting ability.
The most effective scare of this film is the sound, which is something a lot of people don’t think about when it comes to film. Most people think of film as being a strictly visual medium, but they fail to realize the subtle effects that sound has on the audience. Even silent movies had sound tracks to accompany them, and it is this movie’s sound that helps build its aura of fear. In addition to the movie’s own haunting theme, each of the snuff films are accompanied by its own disturbing soundtrack, which is near impossible to describe. It isn’t traditional instruments, and really needs to be heard to be appreciated. The movie’s sound isn’t limited to just the film itself either. The hum of a projector plays over the production companies’ logos before the movie even starts. It’s a nice little touch that gets the audience in the right mood to watch a horror film.
Sinister is by no means a flawless film. It relies a little too much on jump scares and there are a couple scenes that feel slightly out of place. However, the good vastly outweighs the bad. The movie is incredibly effective at building up a terrifying atmosphere. The images are ghastly and the sound is horrific and it really does put the audience on edge. The acting is solid and there is some good comic relief to help break up the tension. And at the end of the day Sinister is the only film that I have ever seen that literally made me scream, and for that reason alone this movie earns my highest recommendation.