PLOT: A struggling writer and his family move into a house where a horrific murder took place almost a year ago. The writer, on a quest to rediscover his past success, attempts to solve the mystery of the murder, but there is an evil force at play that he's not at all prepared to face.
REVIEW: It needn't be put off or built up, so let's get to it: SINISTER is a truly great horror movie; a dread-filled, flat-out scary shocker that's like a clinic on how to jolt an audience into grim submission. Not content to be a simple Halloween-season diversion, SINISTER lives up to its title, and then some, by delivering a relentless series of unnerving sequences filled with ominous images and haunting ideas. Director Scott Derrickson clearly intends to populate your nightmares with visions of SINISTER's merciless antagonist for a long time, and he rather handily succeeds. SINISTER is going to f*ck up a lot of people.
It is safe to say that Derrickson's resume did not lead me to believe that he was capable of the morbid power SINISTER holds. Derrickson's highlights include the courtroom drama/possession thriller THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and the unfortunate DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remake, starring a more-bored-than-ever Keanu Reeves. Seemingly on his way to Director Jail for good, Derrickson has detoured drastically and conjured up this suspenseful and disturbing film which is destined to become a genuine modern-day horror classic - and that's no hyperbole.
What's particularly jostling about SINISTER's ability to crawl under the skin is its rather mundane set-up. Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison, a true-crime novelist trying desperately to recapture the fame and glory achieved too many years ago with his first book. Still vain but undoubtedly humbled by his uneven track record, Ellison craftily moves his family into the house once belonging to a slaughtered family; a mother, father and two children were hung from the front yard's tree branch, while the youngest daughter is missing. We quickly learn Ellison has, in the past, had no compunction about relocating his entire family to a new town to be closer to a juicy story, but this latest move is so inordinately creepy that he doesn't even tell his wife. For Ellison, getting to the bottom of this particular mystery means the revival of his career, and what his wife and two children don't know won't hurt them. This is what Ellison thinks.
After squaring away much of the house and setting up a comfy office, Ellison discovers a box in the attic. The box contains several home movies, shot on 8mm, all labeled rather innocuously with titles like, 'Family BBQ" and "Lawn Work." The content, however, isn't so harmless: each film depicts the gruesome murder of a family at the hands of an unknown assailant. Not only has Ellison found a document of the disposal of the people whose house he currently inhabits, but he now finds himself with a handful of unsolved killings on his hands. Sick stuff indeed, but it incites a dormant passion in the author, who proceeds to investigate with a renewed fervor.
Without giving too much away, let's say that Ellison's investigation leads to the disquieting revelation that each family has a tenuous connection to one another. And the murders themselves, ritualistic in nature, appear to be perpetrated by a white-faced demon known as Bagul, whose ghostly visage can be seen in each piece of evidence. Murder is only part of what Bagul's business is, as Ellison is soon to find out.
Okay, you might think, so it's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY meets THE RING; cue the predictable jump-scares, sickly-looking ghost children and passe found-footage. But SINISTER inhabits a world of its own, impressively enough. You'll be hard-pressed to compare it to anything else offhand, but that could be because SINISTER's subject matter is dark in a profound way unusual for the supernatural genre nowadays. Derrickson's found-footage contains some really ghastly visuals, and the general atmosphere of the picture is one of palpable disquiet, but what's really terrifying (as is true with all the great horror films) is what you don't see. The ideas that your brain soaks up along SINISTER's ghoulish path are sure to chill you to your bones, as the story taps into some very primal fears that burrow far deeper than an easy jump-scare..
Perhaps Derrickson's most impressive feat is the way he keeps a noose tightened around his audience throughout, barely breaking the considerable tension with scenes of exposition. We rarely get a break from having our nerves jangled, which can be quite exhausting, but it's undeniably refreshing to experience a horror movie that so effortlessly compels us and terrorizes us in equal measure. It's like sitting on the edge of your seat and being pinned back to it at the same time. He has reinvented himself as a director to keep an eye on; it shall be very interesting to find out what's next for him. (A SINISTER sequel is, despite the film's bleak conclusion, definitely feasible.
Ethan Hawke is, as ever, a reliably engrossing screen presence; Ellison is in almost every single scene of the film, so without a strong performer inhabiting him, the film wouldn't work on a human level, no matter how scary it is. It's to Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill's credit that they make Ellison a rather flawed person: he drinks too much when under pressue, he lies to his family and the police, he's consumed with popularity and his own ego. Hawke captures the man's likable persistence as much as his somewhat pathetic yearning for prestige. It's a really splendid performance.
However, Bagul (or Mr. Boogie, as he's "affectionately" known) is the movie's real scene-stealer; his brief appearances are disorienting and effective, and the more susceptible audience members will be seeing his face long after they leave the theater. He could be the next major horror franchise villain, and as is usually the case, his ability to scare will likely dissipate after a few installments, but currently he's the most fearsome creation in the movies.