Horror Film Review: Sinister (dir. by Scott Derrickson)

Sinister is the scariest film of 2012.

That’s not the way that I wanted to start this review because calling any film the best or the worst or the scariest reeks of hyperbole.  But, in the two weeks that since I first saw Sinister, I have not been able to get the film out of my head.  Sinister is not only a horror film.  It’s also a deeply disturbing experience that inspires you to keep an eye out for mysterious shadows while you’re leaving the theater.  As opposed to the similar Paranormal Activity films, Sinister remains scary even after the film itself has ended.  Sinister is like Insidious without that terrible ending.

In short, Sinister is the scariest film of 2012.

Sinister opens with a genuinely disturbing sequence, in which we see a family of four, standing next to a tree.  All of them are wearing bags over their heads, all of them are bound by tape, and all of them have a noose around their neck.  One of the tree’s limbs is sawed off by an unseen person, causing all four of our victims to be lifted up in the air and slowly strangled to death.  The grainy footage has the look of an old home movie and the whole scene has a sickeningly authentic feel to it.

Months later, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family move into the house where the murders previously occurred.  Ellison is a formerly succesful true crime writer who is desperately trying to come up with the bestseller that can revive his career.  He plans to write about the murders that occurred in the backyard of his new home but he neglects to tell his new family that they’re living in a murder house.

While exploring his new home, Ellison discovers a mysterious box in the attic.  The box contains a film projector and several reels of film.  Late at night, Ellison locks himself in his office and watches the films.  He discovers that each reel of film contains two scenes.  In the first scene, we see a happy family spending time together.  In the 2nd scene, we see that same family being brutally murdered in a way that provides a macabre comment on what they were previously seen doing.  For instance, a film entitled “Pool Party ’66,” starts with a family happily playing in a pool and ends with them being drowned.  “BBQ ’79” opens with a family barbecue and ends with that same family being burned alive in their car.

As Ellison investigates, he finds himself becoming more and more obsessed with the macabre home movies and it starts to become obvious that Ellison is a bit unstable himself.  Meanwhile, his son is having night terrors, his daughter is painting pictures of people hanging from a tree, and the local sheriff (played by Fred Thompson, the former presidential candidate) is encouraging Ellison to abandon his book and just leave town.

Oh, and little pasty-faced children are showing up in the house, standing in darkened corners and scowling at Ellison and his family…

There’s only so much that I can say about Sinister without giving away too much of the film’s plot.  Sinister may start out feeling like the 100th rip-off of Paranormal Activity but, much like last year’s Insidious, it eventually takes off in a direction of its own.  Hawke gives a memorably unhinged performance and, unlike so many other horror films, Sinister actually follows through on all of its dark potential.  Sinister ends with a twist that’s so disturbing and unnerving that I have yet to get out of my head.

If you’re looking for the scariest movie playing in theaters this Halloween, Sinister is it.

9 responses to “Horror Film Review: Sinister (dir. by Scott Derrickson)

  1. The ending definitely threw me for a loop. Part of me kept on expecting the story to dial things back from the abyss but it never did and I think that’s why this film worked from start to finish.

    Like you said in your review, it followed through on what the early set-up laid out. More often than not filmmakers really don’t want to go beyond scary. It’s a rare film where the screenwriters and the filmmaker all agree to keep pushing beyond the line of what’s expected and see whats on the other side.

    Part of my smiles at the success of this film due to the fact that one of the writers who wrote the script is one C. Robert Cargill who began his writing career by being one of the resident writers for Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News. Maybe in time one of the writers here will follow in his footsteps and end up writing the next great horror film or next great action blockbuster.


  2. I actually thought the ending twist was telegraphed after a certain point in Ellison’s investigation. All that did for me though was to create a terrible sense of dread waiting to see if I was right.

    This was a really good movie. I’m glad I saw it in theaters and, weirdly, glad I saw it with an audience. Other audience members just annoyed me at films like Paranormal Activity, but fit Sinister we were all staring into an abyss together and it was… Awesome.


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  4. I watched this film a couple of nights ago, and “Insidious” the night before. “Insidious” was pretty good – sort of an altered and updated (and surprisingly, reined-in, though someone does actuall die in this one) “Poltergeist”. Worthwhile watch.

    But I liked “Sinister” more. Truly creepy. And instead of pseudo-supernatural red herrings, like too many films employ, we do get…well…I don’t want to give too much away, either. But like you, I am still thinking about the film. And Mr. Boogle…


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