SXSW 2012: ‘Sinister’ is skillfully shot and truly chilling

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Directed by Scott Derrickson

Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill

USA, 2012

Four figures stand under a tree limb, hooded and noosed. Each figure’s noose rounds the limb and attaches to another branch which is slowly breaking away. As it falls, it lifts the four flailing bodies into the air, suffocating them. Title card.

The opening of Scott Derrickson’s (The Exorcism of Emily RoseSinister projects an air of lurid confidence that runs through the entire film. This frame, four bodies hanging in the air, both literally and figuratively weaves throughout the entire film.
Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a True Crime novelist attempting to recreate the decade old success of his first book. As it becomes clear is his M.O., Ellison moves his wife and two young children into a town in which a horrid crime has recently taken place. This time, unbeknownst to them, he has moved them into the actual crime scene: a house with a stately old hanging tree out back. Unconcerned with the morbidness of it all, Ellison is confident he has found the case to save his career.

It’s unclear for awhile what exactly Sinister is. Whether it is a tense psychological thriller, a haunted house horror, or a dark procedural drama is up to the audience’s speculation for the film’s first half. But from the opening scenes it is a film with a tremendous command of tension, a dry (occasionally quite black) sense of humor, and several outstanding performances. The fact that this film can be so absorbing–not to mention funny–given that much of it involves Ethan Hawke watching old 8mm snuff films and looking frightened is frankly befuddling. You might be able to achieve the same effect by looking at the wrong parts of the internet for a couple hours, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most stressful films to come out in the last few years.

Derrickson takes plenty of cues from horror canon–and if you’re sick of cultish iconography and creepy children, steer clear. Also, as many frightening mysteries can, Sinister loses some of its fright in the coda. But given how great and welcome the relief of tension a little bit of explanation provides, we’ll call it a wash. Repeat viewing may diminish the film’s effect as well, but this remains an incredibly classy production which belies its small budget. Not only is it skillfully shot, with truly chilling found footage, but the score is a masterpiece of electronic dread.

Sinister doesn’t hit until October, but, for fans of dark horror, it is going to hit hard. Watch out for it.


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