Julia Straub says Ethan Hawke shines as the psychological effects of Ellison Oswalt's ego unfold onscreen.
Sinister (2012), directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written with C. Robert Cargill, follows the story of a washed-up true crime novelist who moves his family into a house with a dark past. The film has a little something for everyone with its blend of true crime, the supernatural, and found footage. It's a truly horrifying experience with an unexpected and violent end.
Desperate for inspiration, true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a decadent Pennsylvania home. He hopes its history and ambiance will help him craft his next bestseller. The house, while rich in potential, holds disturbing secrets. In a mysterious and terrifying spree of murders, the last family met a fatal end. Ellison, knowing this, chooses not to tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and his children Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario). While sifting through the attic, Ellison discovers a box of Super 8mm film reels that detail the gruesome deaths of several families. His journalistic passion ignites, leading him and a local deputy (James Ransone) on an investigation to solve the case. When evidence hints at a supernatural entity, Ellison learns too late that moving into the house may have been a deadly mistake.
Sinister uniquely ties different genres and media together to appeal to broader audiences. The families’ murders hint at a pagan deity named Bughuul, who can travel into our world through footage of himself to consume children’s souls. The fictional character shares many characteristics with the pagan deity Moloch. Bughuul's presence serves as the film's supernatural element, while Ellison’s unraveling of the mystery offers an essential crime element. It also leverages found footage from Super 8mm film first available in the 60s. The film's balance of mystery, gore, and other unsettling elements are what makes it memorable.
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Christopher Norr’s cinematography is relatively cliche as it borrows the tropes of many horror films before it by using dull lighting and dark tones throughout the film. However, found footage scenes are what elevate it. Rather than relying on jump scares, the tapes set audiences up for the surprise ending while slowly building tension. Hawke’s performance is similarly memorable. He didn't see the tapes until filming, making his reactions incredibly authentic as he and his character Ellison witness and experience the disturbing images for the first time with audiences.
Allusions to the dangers of obsession serve the film well. Speaking to its deeper themes, Sinister’s true evil shines less through Bughuul than through Ellison’s character progression. The film sheds light on addiction and serves as a lesson on familial neglect, as Ellison's increasingly intense focus on his work causes him to brush off the supernatural occurrences his family encounters. We're forced to rethink our obsessions and remember our priorities, as Ellison proves that succumbing to personal demons has a more disastrous effect than any supernatural creature.
Sinister stands out from most films in the genre despite its use of common tropes like creepy kids that we've seen in countless horror films. The snuff films are particularly unsettling and distinct. Dickerson's direction, alongside Hawke's captivating performance, make the film a powerful cautionary tale exploring the dangers of addiction.
Sinister is streaming on Peacock.