SXSW 2012: Scott Derrickson's 'Sinister' is a Welcomed Discomfort
by Jeremy Kirk
March 13, 2012
Sinister had just ended. A sense of unnerving rushed over the SXSW audience, at the film's surprise secret premiere. At first, I didn't think I like the film I had just seen, the R-rated, haunted house horror starring Ethan Hawke and co-written by C. Robert Cargill (aka AICN's Massawyrm). I didn't think I liked it. In hindsight, I realize it just upset me. Sinister is the kind of horror that hurts, a found footage film where you see the character who actually finds the footage. But this footage isn't film students running through the woods or even a 9-foot tall demon bending people over backwards. This is snuff Hawke's writer character is seeing, families who are meeting their end in horrific fashion, and horrific it is all the way through.
Directed by Scott Derrickson - who also co-wrote with Cargill - Sinister opens with one of these films Hawke will later stumble upon, one of a box of many he would discover while searching for the truth behind why a family was murdered. This opening shot sets the tone for the rest of the film, shows you something you've seen a variation on before, but here it's different. It's creepier. The image, which won't be spoiled here, because experiencing that opening moment puts you in the head of this film, moves with a ghostlike lingering, the way a sheet might move if someone is walking around covered with it. It doesn't stop there.
Sinister has some truly terrifying images. The storyline Cargill & Derickson have conceived here allows for all manner of images to be shown, the stand-out being Mr. Boogie, probably the most classically sinister creation the film has to offer. Played by Nicholas King, he's as foreboding a villain as a film like Sinister can muster. Every time the creature is on screen you instantly feel uncomfortable. But scary as Mr. Boogie is, it's the sight of families being brutally murdered that sticks with you long after the film is over.
You feel the terror washing over Hawke's character as he's watching this footage, mostly because he's such a fine actor. Seeing the footage yourself, watching the imagery Cargill and Derickson have amassed for our ghost hunting eyes, only solidifies your empathy for Hawke's character's mindset. He's a man who is slowly losing his grip on reality because of what he's seeing and what he is experiencing. He's a man who feels his own family, wife, son and daughter, threatened by something he doesn't understand and isn't all that sure even exists. It isn't new horror, but it's effective. We hunt the ghosts, but we never really think about what happens if we find one. Chances are we'd be every bit as terrified as the protagonist in this film.
Sinister throws in enough surprises to keep the pace going. A cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio still remains creepy even with its attempt at humor working, as well. The film builds until the penultimate moment when everything comes together - maybe not as smoothly as it should, but, at least, the film doesn't fall into ridiculous exposition where it easily could have - and you're left with that feeling. It's a feeling that, at first, tells you you didn't like Sinister. Some horror is meant to make you upset, though. The best of adult horror leaves you upset when the credits roll. Sinister is solid, adult horror. It isn't the most fun time you'll have at the theater, but it does its job exceedingly well. In a world of bland, PG-13 slashers and common ghost stories, it's a welcomed discomfort.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8 out of 10