Review: Sinister (2012)

Posted on September 25, 2012 by UK Editor

Review by Tristan Bishop

Ghost stories are big business right now. Whilst horror fans are generally happy to consume low-budget exercises in search of thrills (and sometimes a little innovation), mainstream audiences are lapping up the most archaic of spooky stories, as evidenced by the massive success of Hammer’s version of The Woman In Black, and the likes of Insidious – roller-coaster box office juggernauts designed to make you propel your popcorn skywards (presumably so you will then buy more). Sinister is firmly in this category – It’s commercial and free of depth or anything really new, but what it is is a precision engineered scare machine, and boy is it impressive.

Ethan Hawke takes the lead as a writer of true crime novels (I swear that every other main character in horror films is a writer. I’m demanding more authenticity from now on – we need more accountants in lead roles. Maybe some call-centre operators?) who is struggling to follow up his hit book of ten years past. He’s had a setback or two with his last couple of books, we are led to believe, including possibly letting a killer go free. Whoops. Anyway, in order to keep wife Juliet Rylance and their two kids fed, he decides to move into a house, that, unknown to his family but known to Mr Hawke, was the scene of precisely the gruesome family slaying he is writing about! Naughty Ethan! As luck would have it, he discovers an old box of Super 8 film and a projector in his loft and scans through it, discovering to his horror that the cans all contain a different Super 8 film in which a family is slain. Investigating further he discovers a horrific demonic presence lurking in some of the frames on the films, and then things start to happen around the house…

Sinister starts off with a very arresting image – A ‘found footage’ (wait! Don’t run away!) shot of a family of four being hung from a tree, hoisted by an unseen hangman. It’s an undeniably disturbing image, and sets a tone of unease from the off. This, it transpires, is one of the homemade snuff films found by the main character, and I must say that after the glut of godawful glorified home movies churned out recently under the found footage genre umbrella, it’s rather refreshing to see it used as a device so effectively (although I can just imagine a big shot producer demanding that some video footage be stuck in the film, because Paranormal Activity makes money). The film achieves a real intensity by using this footage, along with a combination of spooky occurances, mental disintegration of the main character and some very naughty jump scares (with very loud bangs on the soundtrack, so I would advise a trip to a cinema with a good soundsystem for this one) to do its work – and work it does. The screening I attended saw more than a few of the hardened film reviewers jumping out of their seats (and at least a couple of genuine shrieks of terror!)

Ethan Hawke plays his role very well, believable as a man obsessed by his work, conflicted on his reasons for being drawn to these mysteries, and the children in the film are also excellent in their parts. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Juliet Rylance however – she and her supposed husband lack any chemistry and she delivers their big argument scene in a very unconvincing manner. The other slight problem I have with Sinister is that, much like The Woman In Black, when the spooky things actually appear onscreen it loses some power for me. This reviewer is still insistent that the scariest film ever committed to celluloid is Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) – a film in which nothing is shown, and as such, all the scary-faced ghosts, ghouls and demons in the world won’t have me cowering behind a cushion to the extent that the fear of the lurking unknown will. I am aware that this is a personal viewpoint however – I have been disappointed when, showing the Haunting to people, they have enjoyed it but not found it remotely scary. Also, Sinister is very long for a horror film – 110 mins to be precise, and whilst the tension is well maintained for the most part, the ending does seem to go on a little longer than it needs to (which was, again, my major problem with The Woman In Black).

All in all then, if what you want from a horror film is for it to work very hard at making you jump out of your skin, then Sinister comes highly recommended – again with the caveat that you see it on a big screen with a thunderous sound system. I will put 10 pence on Sinister being a sizeable hit, which will no doubt inspire yet more big budget ghostly tales which will in turn became as toxic to the horror faithful as sparkly vampires and found footage flicks. But for now? Enjoy the ride.

Sinister is out in UK cinemas on 5th October 2012, from Momentum.