27 October 2012

Review: Sinister

(Dir: Scott Derrickson, 2012)

This year has seen a shocking lack of decent horror released at the cinema. I can't say I'm unsurprised as it fits the trend we've been seeing for some time, but with nothing standing out this year and with Halloween approaching, surely all hope is not lost? Fortunately not quite – there’s something of a small saviour in the shape of Sinister. It may not be a ground breaking horror and it may not even be overly scary, but it actually has a lot to offer. The plot is as straight forward as they come – a true crime writer (Ethan Hawke) and his family move into a new home where some recent chilling murders occurred. As he investigates them for his book, everything starts to get a bit weird etc etc.

Where Sinister very strongly succeeds is in the atmosphere it creates. There is a pervading weight of creepiness encompassing everything, which is the necessary lifeblood of a film of this nature. Hawke’s character knows something’s not right with this case and this house he's brought his family to, but he has to keep pushing and pushing things as that's his nature. In large part the creepiness comes from a collection of super 8 films that form the basis of his investigation – this isn’t a spoiler, they’re introduced very early in the film – but the darkness of their content just instantly affects the mood. They're superbly assembled. We the audience are just like Hawke’s character, curious and desperate to see what's on them but at the same time wishing we could look away. 

Sinister feels like a well structured film and benefits from offering up an intriguing mystery that needs solving. There’s a tendency in modern horror to lead off with a shock and then every few minutes keep adding them ad nauseum with nothing more offered. But think back to the likes of The Exorcist or The Shining, or even the recent The House Of the Devil. These all excel by focusing on the slow build and by feeling like they want to tell a story, not just be a sensationalist blast that you’re quickly in and out of. This approach is where horror can be at it's most unsettling. As such we get character development between Hawke and Juliet Rylance who plays his wife, including lengthy conversational scenes which all help with believability and context. Having a decent actor like Hawke involved helps with that and although this may not be anywhere near his best work, he his solid and very watchable.

However, despite this successful approach the film still has issues, the biggest of which lies in the story. When the mystery gets closer to being solved it ends up feeling pretty unsatisfying – I don’t want to give anything away but the overall concept behind it all should’ve been worked through in a different manner, more fitting with what preceded. Frustratingly this idea has a lot of potential and it just left me feeling robbed. The other big issue is a common one these days. Despite creating the tools to build some effective atmosphere, Sinister still feels beholden to providing cheap shocks, somewhat undermining the effect. Shocks are of course needed to relieve a little tension and there are a couple of decent ones, but overall there's too many and they're unimaginative, which mostly intrude on what’s actually working in the film. It takes a skilled director to know how to place and approach them effectively. Speaking of things that do work, the sound design is absolutely fantastic, some of the best I’ve heard in a horror film in quite some time. The way this aides the atmosphere is practically immeasurable.

On the whole Sinister is a decent and effectively creepy film that lets itself down by occasionally acting like a lesser horror film. The atmosphere is oppressive and the mystery is intriguing, but by becoming increasingly concerned with delivering jumps it prevents itself from being as scary as it could be. The attention to detail, production design, presence of Hawke and most notably some truly excellent sound design, make it stand above anything horror wise that I’ve seen in a while. However I’m still left to lament over how truly scary Sinister could’ve been if it had taken it’s core idea in an even more malignant direction.

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