Wednesday, October 24, 2012


SINISTER (Scott Derrickson, 2012)

True-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has a habit of getting on the bad side of local law enforcement wherever he goes.  In SINISTER his latest project does little to endear him to the community.  Ellison is researching the case of a girl who went missing after her parents and two siblings were hanged from a tree in their backyard.  In a ghoulish decision, the out-of-town author moves his family into the victims’ home, although his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids are unaware of the house’s recent history.

In the attic Ellison finds a box of 8mm home movies. The labeled cases feature innocuous titles for the films, but when Ellison fires up the projector to watch them, he discovers horrifying documentation of the murders he’s investigating as well as footage of other ritually slaughtered families.  The deeper Ellison sinks into his work, the more he struggles to shake the horrible images he’s witnessed.  Eventually he turns to a starstruck deputy (James Ransone) for assistance in gaining information about the larger story he’s stumbled upon.     

SINISTER functions as an unnerving testament to the power and pull of the moving image.  Ellison obsessively watches the home movies, poring over every frame for clues regarding the location and people involved in the killings.  Although he’s doing a careful reading of the text from an objective distance, he is still susceptible to being affected by what passes before his eyes.  Ellison is not a film critic in that he is not rendering approval or disapproval on the movies’ aesthetic values, but he is practicing the kind of dedicated engagement with the work that marks the cinephile.

Analytic interpretation aside, it’s a scary movie.  Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson mixes in a modicum of jump scares while maintaining an enduring state of uneasiness. The horror doesn’t come from anticipating a supernatural being leaping out of dark corners or seeing graphic violence.  For Ellison and the audience the terror comes in having what’s suggested in the flickering images seared into one’s consciousness. Swaying bodies dangling from a branch and the hint of mutilation are hard to shake from the mind’s eye.  Even when what’s depicted is not especially vivid, the persistence of the visions are.

SINISTER isn’t to be mistaken for a novel entry in the genre.  It owes more than a debt of gratitude to THE SHINING and THE RING, among others, but Derrickson processes the chilling influences into an eerie experience mindful of the significance of projected images watched alone in the dark.

Grade: B

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