Summit’s Sinister plays Fantastic Fest this weekend (a few weeks ahead of its official release date on October 12th). While my review was heavily mixed on the film (favorable by a hair), Evan Dickson found a lot more to like.
“As Ellison makes his way through the tapes, accompanied by copious amounts of whiskey, it’s hard not to be impressed. These images are never less than unsettling and occasionally they’re downright horrific. This is the real coup of the film. Derrickson has touched upon something truly indelible in the construction of these moments. They’re not gory, but they’re unflinching. He lets you see more than most filmmakers do, yet still knows when to pull back at the exact right time required to maximize the intended impact. ”
Sinister works. That’s really what it all boils down to. It works. I have some misgivings with the film’s logic (along with the logic of the characters), but its efficacy as an experience is hard to deny. If you’re a horror fan it’s a can’t miss. And if you’re a mainstream filmgoer who just wants a night out at the movies around Halloween, it beats out nearly every other wide release this year in terms of scares. Feeling burned by supernatural duds The Devil Inside, The Possession and The Apparition? Don’t worry. Sinister is the movie you’ve been wanting all along.
Ethan Hawk plays Ellison, a true crime novelist whose glory days are behind him (one hit and two flops in ten years). His past successes enable and embolden his pursuit of future triumphs, while his current failures have eroded his finances and the strength of his family unit. In spite of the havoc this ambition has wreaked upon the family his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is still (tentatively) supportive of his aspirations. For now. The research for his last two books put the family through hell and she warns him early on that this is pretty much his last shot with them.
The family dynamic in the film is surprisingly great. I’m not sure I could buy all of the contrasting information and behavior displayed if I was only reading the script because not a lot of it makes sense on a simple cause and effect level. But what might not play on the page certainly plays on screen. Hawke and Rylance have a chemistry that acknowledges their tortured past (and present), which is what the script tends to focus on. But their performances, and Scott Derrickson’s direction, fill in a vital gap – they actually love each other. It’s rare to see an embattled marriage depicted with such nuance and care in this genre. While the narrative may lurch occasionally, progressing and regressing and spinning its wheels, it all works because it plays out as the natural back-and-forth that couples engage in when they love each other but want completely different things out of life. Last month’s The Possession tripped over itself by trying to pull off a similar feat, so it’s nice to see it work here. Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley also turn in good (and ultimately indispensable) work as their two children.
Not to make this sound like Revolutionary Road or anything. Ellison and Tracy aren’t fighting over whether or not to live in the suburbs or have another child. They’re fighting because Ellison’s relentless pursuit of fame (disguised as a pursuit of justice) is taking a severe psychological toll on their children and is, quite literally, alienating their family from the world. Oh, and he also just moved them into a house whose previous residents were hung from a tree in the back yard. Like, the break in the tree branch is still fresh. Kind of a huge f*ck-up on the part of the guy trying to keep things together on the domestic front.
While unpacking, Ellison almost immediately stumbles upon a box in the attic labeled “Home Movies.” Inside are several canisters of 8MM film and a projector. Since he’s investigating the demise of the family he might as well open it up, right? Not only does he find footage depicting the demise of the previous residents, he finds footage depicting the demises of several other families as well.
As Ellison makes his way through the tapes, accompanied by copious amounts of whiskey, it’s hard not to be impressed. These images are never less than unsettling and occasionally they’re downright horrific. This is the real coup of the film. Derrickson has touched upon something truly indelible in the construction of these moments. They’re not gory, but they’re unflinching. He lets you see more than most filmmakers do, yet still knows when to pull back at the exact right time required to maximize the intended impact. That these moments work at all contradicts many of the rules less assured horror filmmakers lean on. That they work as well as they do is kind of a minor miracle.
And Derrickson doesn’t blow through all of his tricks right away. As the film goes along tensions within the family rise, characters are added for comic relief/exposition* and the mythology opens up but there’s plenty of menace left in the bank. The movie keeps working well past the point where many haunted house films are content to lazily fizzle.
When the film hits its 3rd act it has a harder time sustaining Ellison’s motive for keeping his family in such a state of peril. Sure, fame and money are great but we know he’s a decent guy at heart and he makes the transition from passive paternus to active paternus a little late to truly be in step with the character they’ve created. There’s also a decision to render “spectral” images in a manner that feels too tangible to really sell and a late-stage revelation in regard to the mythology feels overly convenient.
Still, the film compensates for this with one of the darkest and most conceptually brutal endings I’ve seen in a mainstream film this year**. We’re not quite talking Mist levels of despair here, but I found myself admiring the film’s verve and willingness to “go there.” In one way or another, Sinister gets the job done. It may alternate strengths and weaknesses as it moves along, but it never fails in its objective. Sinister works.
*Having Vincent D’Onofrio show up in one of these roles shows a nice sense of humor regarding its utilitarian nature.
**I should note that I would have given the film an even higher score had it maintained its assured hand during the final 24 frames. There’s an inexplicable jump scare that only serves to slightly undercut the ending. Without it, the film’s unsettling qualities would have been allowed to linger a bit longer.
Bonus? See if you can spot the homage to 1988’s Meg Ryan/Dennis Quaid DOA remake.
7.5/10 (shave the last second off – literally – and it’s an 8).
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