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Sinister (2012) - A morbid start to a morbid affair

Sinister (2012) – Professional Horror From Scott Derricksen

4/5

Every once in a while, something slips through the cracks at Malevolent Dark, and we must catch up to conventional industry wisdom. We recently reviewed the insanely hyped The Black Phone (2022) and quite frankly didn’t understand the buzz about this film. We had seen Scott Derricksen’s other work in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), a good movie, but not necessarily transformational. While doing research for The Black Phone, we continually ran into high praise for Sinister (2012) which I thought we had under our belt.

That’s when I realized that for the last 10 years, every time I read the title Sinister James Wan’s Insidous jumped to the forefront of my mind. With such a highly esteemed film escaping our grasp, we felt we needed to weigh in… even though we were clearly late to the party. We are proud to review this work by Scott and his frequent writing collaborator C. Robert Cargil.

A Beginning Like No Other

One of the reoccurring anchors of Scott Derricksen’s film revolves around found footage of the snuff variety. The films beginning reverberates the the halls of horror with a grainy 8mm film clip that depicts a family standing shoulder to shoulder with burlap sacks on their heads and ropes around their neck. Feet still on the ground, the rope all join in a knot on a thick and sturdy branch. Slowly, an unseen hand saws away at the branch until its weight slowly pulls it to the ground, likewise pulling the family in unison into the air. Their legs helplessly kick the open air until one by one they slow to stop.

In less than one minute, Scott Derricksen hopelessly drew me into the film. There was no turning back.

Sinister (2012) - A morbid start to a morbid affair
Scott Derricksen goes straight for the throat with a morbid beginning on 8mm film

Sinister –  Plot Synopsis

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) writes books about unsolved murders. His reputation as a man critical of police work precedes him as he and his family move to a small town in Chatford, Pennsylvania. he intends to get to the bottom of the aforementioned crimes portrayed in the opening frame. Of this murdered family, one member, Stephanie Stevenson, simply disappeared… never to be found again. Little does Ellison’s family know that the events occurred in the very home that he just moved his family into.

Ellison’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and daughter Ashely (Clare Foley) quickly learn that their father may have put them in extreme danger.

Upon setting up his research shop, Ellison quickly comes across a box of old 8mm films and a projector in the attic. With titles like, “Pool Party ’66”, they look to be nothing more than a trove of old family videos. Looking for clues, he throws them on the projector. Each film begins innocently enough, but eventually they conclude in the brutal deaths of the involved families. Some unseen entity films the events from behind the camera.

As Ellison descends deeper and deeper into the mystery he encounters some strange things. First, in the films he finds the presence of a mysterious figure; humanoid in stature, but clearly not really human. He also finds a reoccurrence of a strange symbol in every video. Eventually, Ellison comes into contact with a renowned occult expert, Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onfrio). He explains the mythology of a demonic presence named Bughuul, The Eater of Children. The story of Bughuul turns out to be more real than anyone would ever imagine.

Sinister (2012) - A Sinister figure appears in a box of family films
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) finds a sinister figure in a box of family films

The Art of the Jump-Scare

it seems that a lazy narrative has permeated horror commentary. That lazy narrative involves the ‘Jump-Scare’. The criticism comes from a very honest place, but sometimes can be over-emphasized. Yes, jump-scares are often overused. Yes, jump-scares often provide a lazy placeholder for legitimate horror storytelling. Yet, properly architected jump-scares may be the purest form of horror cinema. In the case of Scott Derricksen’s work on Sinister, he clearly understands the artisanship required.

The art of the jump-scare comes not from the release but rather the slow building of tension. Sinister’s premise causes chills to run down the spine and raises hairs on the back of the neck. Even in times of chill, the images from the snuff films replay over and over in the head, each horrible in its own way. Anytime Ethan Hawke got up from his office chair, stakes were high. In many instances, Derricksen feigns the actual scare and slowly release pressure. The painstaking uncertainty becomes the real source of terror.

In one especially effective scene, the jump-scare come not from a demon hiding in the dark, but rather an image on a computer screen coming to life. The effect proves utterly fantastic and totally surprising.

One clear indicator that Scott Derricksen knows exactly what he is trying to accomplish involves the near total lack of gore in the film. Each family suffers undeniably horrible ends. One family’s throats are slashed and another completely dismembered. At no point does Derricksen revel in the gore. He briefly shows the slitting of the throats through the reflection on Ellison’s glasses. This simple layer of indirection conveys the message with out the wince inducing impact. Scott Derricksen understands that sometimes horror stands on it own without a deluge of red stuff.

Sinister (2012) - Ethan Hawke excels as crime writer Ellison Oswalt
Ethan Hawke excels as crime writer Ellison Oswalt

Metallic Horror

A common theme that seems to permeate both Sinister and his later work The Black Phone is the use of heavy metal imagery. In the film The Black Phone, “The Grabber” wears a mask so similar to those worn by the gothic metal (Yeah, I know the term ‘metal’ is a stretch) band Ghost. That the similarity simply can’t be denied. In Sinister, Bughull possesses at least a couple of heavy metal influences. The pale white complexion evokes Norwegian Black Metal corpse paint. Additionally, the overall facial construction also alludes to Mick Thompson’s mask in Slipknot.

There’s nothing more METAL than HORROR!

Colossal Finish

As we wrap this review, we want to make sure that we point out that Derricksen closes this film in cold blood. It’s not really possible to elaborate more without spoiling the ending. It’s bit a of twist, but it feels right at home with the rest of the films tone. Sinister checks all the boxes and in our opinion takes a lot of risks that all eventually pay out. We could certainly think of things to pick on if we tried, but throughout the viewing any transgressions were quickly quashed with fantastic storytelling and enormous tension building.

It’s a very polished film and Ethan Hawke performs admirably in the lead role (he’s a better protagonist than an antagonist). Add Sinister to your collection. It’s really good.

Sinister (2012) - Professional Horror From Scott Derricksen - Malevolent Dark
sinister a morbid start

Director: Scott Derricksen

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33

Editor's Rating:
4

Pros

  • Sinister is immediately engaging.
  • It plays the long game all the way to its climactic and surprising ending. Derricksen strategically plots his scares to ensure that the viewer stays connected throughout.

Cons

  • If it commits any sin, it really hits hard and deep with the concept of loss of family to heinous circumstances.
  • While this trope is critical to the whole concept of the film, it may turn off sensitive viewers.

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