Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #204
Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 11, 2012 (SXSW), October 12, 2012 (US)
Sub Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $87,727,807
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Scott Derrickson
Producers: Jason Blum, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Special Make-Up Effects: Danielle Noe
Visual Effects: David Altenau, Jason Piccioni (uncredited)
Cinematography: Christopher Norr
Score: Christopher Young
Editor: Frédéric Thoraval
Studio: Blumhouse Productions, Automatik Entertainment, Alliance Films, IM Global
Distributors: Summit Entertainment (USA), Momentum Pictures (UK)
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario, Vincent D’Onofrio, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King
Suggested Audio Candy:
Christopher Young Sin Sister Sweet
I have watched a lot of messed up shit in my time. If you lined up some of the twisted material I have been made privy to other the years it would provide a marathon to give Alice Cooper nightmares. I’m not speaking of visceral grue or knee-jerk bolted on scares. I’m talking about the stuff which nestled under your skin blanket and absorbs into your very essence, leaving its indelible stain on your psyche. It is this that makes me question why I have such a fascination with the occult and, at the self-same moment, it is this that validates such enthrallment. More curse than blessing, films which delve into these blackened voids leave their perpetual legacy and are the reason why, at thirty-nine years old, I bolt up the stairs and still pull the covers over my face when I sleep.
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister fits the ominous bill. I sat, as I always do, in my darkened palace while I made my pilgrimage to the murkiest recess I’ve traveled to in many a year. By the time I was ejected a broken mess at the tail end I could barely look to the other side of the room for sheer dread of witnessing these night terrors first hand. This, Grueheads, is what it is all about. If you wish to scare yourself breathless then I would say this is a pretty fucking good place to start. Films such as Insidious and The Conjuring have turned tidy profits from introducing us to the other side of the veil. Both did stellar jobs but it is Derrickson’s film that does so the most effectively.
It opens with a sense of apprehension and torment which lingers throughout the 109 minute runtime. Super 8 footage of a family of four being hung by their necks from a tree bough gives us indication that everything isn’t going to be alright and its a feeling we never manage to shake. True-crime Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) imprudently moves his family into the home of the murdered family and unwittingly stumbles upon a discarded box of labeled home movies in the attic. Looking to start work on his new novel he begins to screen each reel in turn using the accompanying projector and it becomes clear to him that they are, in fact, snuff. Moreover, they appear to be linked in some way and share a number of discomforting distinctions.
This plays out in a totally different manner to other films such as Insidious and The Conjuring in that his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their two children, 7-year-old Ashley (Clare Foley), and 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), are very much secondary here. There are brief glimpses of their family unit functioning day-to-day but the crux of the film is spent alongside Ellison as his inquisitiveness gets the better of him and he unleashes all kinds of evil into their new abode. He is a struggling author and his marriage is beginning to show signs of this strain thus his commitment to writing his magnum opus coupled with a morbid curiosity to dig a little deeper get the better of him and he continues to burrow for clues, regardless of the fact that his son is experiencing night terrors and, his daughter, expressing herself artistically in the most disparaging way. He is repulsed by each new pointer he uncovers but still can’t quite bring himself to look away, much like the audience.
There are a number of factors which make Sinister resonate over the glut of haunted house movies spawned off the back of Paranormal Activity. The first is Hawke. It is too easy for high-profile actors to simply phone in their performances when making lowly genre movies and collect their paycheck. Indeed often their presence hurts the overall credibility. That is not the case here however; he is believable and relatable, squirming in his seat progressively as he plays each ominous reel and attempting to hide his perversion for truth from his long-suffering wife. In the same manner as John Cusack in 1408, his inclusion is entirely justified and his broad shoulders take the weight, gifting us a character that we wish to root for despite his questionable logic. He is aided by able support from Rylance as his neglected spouse and James Ransome as the initially gormless looking Deputy So-and-So who turns out to be a rather valuable ally in his quest for truth.
Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) directs and co-writes alongside C. Robert Cargill and their work is presented handsomely. It is drenched in darkness and minimal lighting which infinitely adds to the consternation. We find ourselves scanning the recesses for signs of the haunting and Derrickson practices a great deal of restraint here, using Christopher Young’s menacing score to heighten our fear without ever resorting to pummeling us with cheap shocks. It has its moments, plenty of them, and this is the kind of film which would seriously damage a child’s psyche if they were afforded access. In this respect, Sinister is the epitome of an adults only experience and thankfully it sidesteps works such as Insidious’ tendency to throw the kitchen sink in during the final act and desensitize you to the monstrosities bleeding into the real world.
By using such restraint, the jolts when they some are enough to send you reeling. The 8mm footage is doused in apprehension and offers up a handful of instances which will chill the very blood in your ventricles and, in addition, there are numerous leap-from-your-skin moments but these are generally implemented in an intelligent manner, rather than preparing you with the customary well orchestrated audio spikes and obvious set-up. The result is a character-driven piece which repeatedly sucks away your oxygen supply and gnaws at your sense of sanctuary. The otherworldly aspect is rarely overplayed and even the one scene where the night terrors are shown a little too literally works on some level. As he navigates his homestead narrowly missing eye contact with these baleful incubuses it reminds us why we are afraid of the dark in the first place and informs us that every creak or ominous shuffle does indeed have legitimacy.
Aside from the very final frame of Sinister it chooses wisely, compounding our dread into 109 minutes of true psychological anguish. It is much darker in tone than so many of its counterparts and, from the very first moments we never expect everything to be tickety-boo. The result is easily one of the creepiest pieces of dark fiction to surface for some time and further proof that less is considerably more. Watch this alone and, more critically, after the end credits roll and you return to your regular existence; allow it to gestate within and remain solo. If it does a number on you like it did Keeper, then those dark endorphins will be in full flow and every shadow will appear all the more portentous. That my friends, is why we watch horror movies in the first place.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Dread Factor: 5/5
For the Dread-Heads: Mr. Boogie is a pagan deity who transcends religion and represents everything we fear as a child. He eats children and that, it itself, tells you all you need to know. He is omnipresent although wisely obscured for the most part, adding majestically to our woes. However, it is the quiet moments when Ellison sits with tumbler of whiskey in hand and previews each reel which leave the most dense psychological scarring. Lawn Work ’86. I need not elaborate further but, when the spools begin to turn on this particular home movie, prepare to cower.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
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