Catching a ghost on film is one thing, but unleashing demons through a Super 8 film reel is what makes Scott Derrickson’s latest horror film “Sinister” unique in theaters.
Anti-hero Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime writer struggling to climb his way back to fame with a new book. He attempts this by moving into the house of a recently deceased family with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley). Upon moving in, Ellison discovers a box of old Super 8 films complete with the camera. When he reviews the films for his book, he discovers a pattern of symbols with a mysterious demonic figure known as Bughuul, the only link in the murders. Ellison sets out to discover their meaning, only to get sucked into a dark and “sinister” world.
“Sinister” takes a new direction in Derrickson’s films, with its clever use of cinematography and images on the Super 8 camera, making it a more memorable film than both “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” both of which he directed.
One unique aspect of this film is the lighting, which gets progressively darker. As if foreshadowing the story, the lighting of scenes portrays the impending doom at the end of the film.
The pacing of “Sinister” moves along as smoothly as the film in a theater’s projector. Derrickson has learned from his past horror movie mistakes and has created a dark and twisted plot borrowed from other horror movies, notably “Ringu,” which was the inspiration for the American remake “The Ring.”
The stories of “Ringu” and “Sinister” are similar in that both include images that have demons trapped within them. As each movie’s plot progresses, the images are slowly turned into reality much to the horror of the audience watching. But sometimes the scares of “Sinister” are a bit predictable.
Part of the blame is in the movie’s advertisements, which spoil some of the events in the later parts of the movie. Commercials on TV and previews in theaters showed off the best parts of the film.
The use of tension-building music in the film also gave way to its thrilling moments. Every time a boogieman or ghoul was about to jump out, the music suddenly cuts out, followed by the scare. Although this is a technique used in classical horror, it did ruin the surprising aspect of the horror movie frights. This horror technique does work in the favor of “Sinister,” but the repetition makes some of the scares miss the mark.
Derrickson uses another classic horror movie trick when he shows less of the monster to play on people’s fear of what they don’t see. “Sinister” does this very well with Bughuul lurking in the grains of film. It makes the demon more believable and more threatening in the movie’s narrative.
In the second and third act of “Sinister,” it switches from being restricted and tight on Ellison to being more open. The change in range for the audience is both a good and bad move for the movie and is marked by a scare, but then loses focus until the film reaches the climax with the Super 8 films getting steadily more graphic.
Although “Sinister” is a horror movie, it does have its few lighthearted moments. The comic relief scenes are meant to wipe away the bloodied bodies and scary imagery of the film. Lead by a character commonly referred to by Ellison as “Deputy So and So” (James Ransone), the scenes and are meant to break up the tension in a horror movie. The film would have been much scarier if this character didn’t repeatedly suck out the fear “Sinister” was trying to invoke. This comic relief is grossly out of place, forgetting the film’s basis as a horror movie. It was disappointing when the audience laughed more than screamed at the screen.
The editing of the Super 8 films is good, but not great. There were a few obvious moments where Bughuul was uncharacteristically visible. In one key scene of the movie where the audience sees the family getting hanged, Bughuul is clearly posted in the bushes. This is a shame since the other Super 8 films in “Sinister” hide the demonic entity well.
“Sinister” as a horror movie is a step in the right direction for the struggling genre. It has become harder for Hollywood to think of new boogiemen. Bughuul is a movie monster used to his full potential, even if some of the scares in the movie felt a bit forced. The lighting and pacing worked well with the cinematography of the film as well as the partially borrowed plot from “Ringu.” Although not perfect, “Sinister” is a horror movie that’s worth seeing, with images that come to life to attack the audience.
Paul Bagnall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org