Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods. The evil presence possesses them until only one is left to fight for survival.
True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves himself and his family into a house where an horrific crime took place earlier, but his family doesn't know. He begins researching the crime, so that he can write a new book about it - to help his flailing career. He uses some "snuff" film footage he finds in the house to help him in his research, but he soon finds more than he bargained for. There is a figure in each of the films, but who or what is it? As a result, his family start to suffer (as does he), and things take a turn for the worse. Will they survive? Written by
Michael Hallows Eve
The movie for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them
Directed and scripted by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose," 2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") from a C. Robert Cargill story, "Sinister" is an exquisite realization of an original paranormal theme. The movie debuted in this same town's SXSW Film Festival in March.
Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author and devoted family man with a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately fan base and editor anxiously awaiting his next blockbuster. Wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and youngsters Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) are tired of constantly moving from town to town as Oswalt is wont to plant temporary roots close to the subjects of his ripped-from-the-headlines novels. As the film opens, the Oswalts are moving into yet another new house, but Ellison swears this is the last time, and selectively informs his family of his intentions.
In the process of unpacking, Ellison discovers a box of the previous owner's old home movies in the attic. Thus begins the odyssey into the unknown. Let it be said at the outset that this is not "just another found footage film." In reversing the role of viewer and protagonist, to some extent, it's Hawke's character who discovers the reels while we see his story played out on screen. We don't spend two hours watching shaky 8MM footage. They are integral to the narrative but aren't the sum of its parts.
In his horror debut, Hawke turns in a striking tour-de-force performance that rivals anything I've seen recently ("Insidious'" Patrick Wilson comes close). Rylance is delightful as the patient but exasperated wife who's barely willing to stand by her man for one more moment. Foley (Abby in "Win Win") and D'Addario (Josh in "People Like Us") are frighteningly authentic as the glue that holds this tight-knit family together. Fred Dalton Thompson ("Law & Order's" D.A. Arthur Branch and former U.S. Senator) does a star turn as the stubborn sheriff who will have nothing to do with outsiders tarnishing his town's already-shaky reputation. Welcome comic relief comes from underrated character actor James Ransone ("Ken Park," "Inside Man," HBO's "The Wire").
This is Ethan Hawke's first foray into this genre, a simple consequence of his passion for the material. "He said he'd never do horror," paraphrasing the filmmakers in the Q&A following the screening here, but he fell in love with Derrickson's script. The casting of Juliet Rylance as his wife was also done at his suggestion. Their on screen chemistry is undeniable.
The technical team doesn't miss a beat. Top-notch visual effects are always key in a film like this, but the common flaw in this genre lies in overdoing it. CGI and post-production trickery can certainly advance the narrative where appropriate but "Sinister's" old school in-camera effects, done while shooting, enhance the believability of the action.
Cinematographer Chris Norr eschews hand-held for stationary tripod shots and Hitchcockian slow pans, with POV tracking shots that allow the audience to sense the protagonist's growing paranoia. The occasional subjective POV angle, where the character looks at the camera, effectively places the viewer into the scene.
Lighting in the Oswalt home, where most of the action takes place, is appropriately subdued and rife with interplays of light and shadow. Hawke is often seen in silhouette, masking dark corners hiding secrets, literally. Terrifying night scenes beg the question, "Why are you going up into the attic?" Christopher Young's original score blends perfectly with needle-drop songs from some of the filmmakers' favorite indie bands. In a typical production, where third party songs will be inserted, the actors work to a temp track -- music that plays in the background until the company can obtain licensing for the tunes they want for the finished product, usually unknown (although often hoped for) during filming, that are then added to the soundtrack in post-production. With "Sinister," Derrickson and his team were able to purchase the rights prior to shooting so the cast members performed to a playback of the songs that would actually be used in the final cut. It does make a difference, especially when seasoned professionals like Hawke are "acting" in sync with the same music the audience hears in those scenes. It creates a symbiotic ambiance that links viewer to actor.
As a reviewer, I try to keep expectations out of my thoughts and writing. After all, it's only fair to the filmmakers (and me, and my readers) to judge a movie on its merits. Fortunately, it's not too much of a challenge to be as objective as possible when entering the theater, especially if it's a premiere and no other reviews are out there (and you haven't watched a trailer). But Fantastic Fest is a genre festival, after all, and one would not attend, theoretically, without being a fan of same. So expectations are placed on the film simply by virtue of the fact it's even being shown.
That's why I'm happy to report that "Sinister" was all I hoped it would be. Yes, this is why I attend Fantastic Fest and movies like this make it worth the trip. This is the flick for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them. This one does it. "Sinister" will give you nightmares.
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