“Sinister” is carving its place as an effective horror film that joins a canon of films about a writer’s descent into terror. Including it among films like “The Shining,” “Misery” or even “I Spit on Your Grave” may seem eager, but “Sinister” certainly holds its own candle. Ethan Hawke carries that candle in the chilling package of darkness that director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) wraps around C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay of supernatural horror and homicide.
At the Fantastic Fest screening in Austin, Cargill revealed the story’s impetus as a nightmarish image that came to him after a screening of “The Ring.” That image became the most haunting impression and first scene from the film: a family of 4 hanging from a tree limb by nooses and cloaked with brown sacks on their heads. Evoking even more terror is the evocative use of Super-8 footage it is displayed on. Footage that the character Ellison (Hawke) finds in the attic of his family’s new home. It is perhaps the most literal use of found footage, but doesn’t share that sub-genre’s usual trappings in favor of something entirely cinematic.
For producer Jason Blum it is actually the perfect blend of his success with the “Paranormal Activity” series and his past work producing “Hamlet” with Ethan Hawke. Meaning, it’s slightly Shakespearian and heavy with bumps in the night. Hawke himself has a powerful presence in what is unexplored territory for him as an actor in horror; save for “Daybreakers.” It’s not only the intelligent screenplay, co-written by Cargill and Derrickson, but Hawke’s gravitas as a thespian that elevate it well beyond a few cheap thrills.
These obvious elements will carry “Sinister” onward into continued critical acclaim, but it is most sinister in its sound design. There is Christopher Young’s original score, the technicians of terror in the sound department, but also some hand selected tracks from director Scott Derrickson. Anyone who has experienced the chilling curiosity of a Boards of Canada song will know what they’re in for.
There are also gems of close-ups, cornering Ellison and his family in an alluring, claustrophobic tone. There a particular scene where Ellison sets up the projector and threads the Super 8 reel that is candy for a film buff. Even better is Hawke learned how to do the process himself specifically for the film and suggested the scene’s addition. It might not feel like an instant masterpiece, but it warrants a second look and certainly demands a first.