‘Sinister’ is wicked scary, despite flaws
Soundscapes, eerie visuals sustain viewers’ anxiety
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 08:10
Are you a celluloid film buff? Do you enjoy feeling uncomfortable in the safety of your own home? Do metaphysics and the supernatural turn you on?
If you answered yes to any of these, then “Sinister” is a film you will enjoy. Initially, “Sinister” made some waves with the critics on Rotten Tomatoes and boasted a short−lived 100% “fresh” approval rating. Many critics are still calling it the best horror film of 2012, though this isn’t really saying much when the recent contenders like “House at the End of the Street” and “Silent House” fall flat on their faces.
Fear is definitely not the only emotion evoked during the course of “Sinister.” There are plenty of moments when the audience was called to “insert nervous laughter here” to release some pent−up anxiety and keep the plot chugging along. Superlative performances from Ethan Hawke and supporting actor James Ransone provide timely moments of humor between the creepiness and carnage.
The film’s narrative follows the investigative process of author Ellison Oswalt (Hawke), a true−crime novelist, after he discovers footage related to murders that took place in the new home into which he has just moved with his family. As Oswalt delves deeper into the gruesome matter, supernatural events begin to plague his entire family. He also discovers a trove of Super 8 footage cataloging the series of murders he has been tracking for his novel. The use of this footage as a plot device works surprisingly well and it adds greatly to the fear factor of the film. All the footage is first person and is exceedingly creepy when combined with the chilling soundtrack. It’s grainy and dimly lit, and its disorienting, intense sequences are almost as scary as reading the “Goosebumps” series (1992−1997) alone in candle−lit darkness. The Super 8 footage sequences are definitely some of the most disturbing cinematic images of the year.
The film’s soundscape takes the footage to a level of horror ad absurdum. There is a chamber choir quality to the sounds of the murders, which evokes a reflective mood during the P.O.V. killing. The editing of the sounds and the silent portions of the film generate so much fear and tension that the audience almost wants to laugh aloud after brief moments of release. The evanescent, modulated sounds and gothic, diminished chords of the soundtrack provide all that is necessary to mimic metaphysical and supernatural forces. The pacing and quality of the sound are key, and they create a few moments during those Super 8 sequences that viewers will be hard pressed to erase from memory.
After Oswalt’s first few viewings and deeper analyses of the murder footage, his son (Michael Hall D’Addario) begins channeling negative energies. He also starts having intense night terrors that are reminiscent of “The Exorcist” (1973). The portrayal of night terrors to represent anxiety and the reflection of negative energies is a great idea, when it is used sparingly. Although it is a useful theme in the film, it’s a bit overdone. Oswalt is for the most part numb to the condition and emotions of his family, and he uses alcohol as a crutch to distance himself from this insufficiency. Oswalt has a whole slew of character flaws and continues to make horrible decisions that are fueled by his self−doubt, careless family practice and his alcoholism, all of which eat away at his reality.
This is where the film begins to lose steam, and where it is harder to believe the lengths to which Oswalt will go to finish his book. Oswalt’s lack of a conscience leads him to make terrible decisions that make a mockery of his character. He has no real saving grace, which makes it hard to empathize with him. “Sinister” transforms into a portrayal of Oswalt’s battle with himself, despite the supernatural that surrounds him.
“Sinister” does provide some moments of intense anxiety, given Ethan Hawke’s haunting performance, the soundscape and the Super 8 footage, though the narrative begins to lose its metaphysical luster as the same contrived plot devices fail to suspend disbelief. The film is so close to being a perfect score, but the narrative takes too much of a supernatural route without including enough substance to back it up.