Horror Icons, by Matt Warren
More than any other movie genre, Horror is built on the power of the single iconic image. A knife raised above a woman in the shower. The cold stare of a matte-white William Shatner mask. A mousy prom queen soaked with blood. Chucky. And no one seems to understand the value of creeptacular tableaux better than the makers of Sinister, one of the best mainstream horror films of the last half-decade.
Sinister sets the bar high right away, opening with an image of brutal violence so artful and well-executed (pun intended) the rest of the film struggles to match it. Luckily, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his co-writer—film critic C. Robert Cargill—have no shortage of inventive ideas for how to murder entire families. Good for them?
Mr. Reliable Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a once-celebrated True Crime author struggling with a new book. It’s been ten years since his last (and only) big hit, Kentucky Blood, and wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is growing impatient with their nomadic lifestyle. Ellison has moved them from town-to-town to research various macabre tragedies, alienating the community wherever they go. It doesn’t help that of their two small children, one (Michael Hall D’Addario) is plagued by howling night terrors, and the other (Clare Foley) is such an adorable little movie moppet, you just know Derrickson has something horrible planed for her by the third act.
Unwisely, Ellison moves his unsuspecting brood into a house that was the site of a grisly quintuple homicide. “Tell me we didn’t move in three houses down from another crime scene,” his wife moans. “I promise,” Ellison says, possibly literally swallowing a canary at that very moment. Soon Ellison finds a box in the attic full of super-8 home movies, each one depicting the baroque slaughter of an entire family, spread across different houses all over the country. How are these murders connected? Could the Oswalts be next? And what’s with the spooky dude in the background—a hulking, greasy-haired caveman who looks not unlike undertalented Slipknot guitarist Mick Thompson? Needless to say, Ellison may soon have more to worry about than the crumbling publishing industry.
In its own subtle way, Sinister is every bit as much of a deconstructionist horror movie as this year’s V/H/S and The Cabin in the Woods. The home movies are a clear nod to Found Footage, cleverly incorporating the disreputable subgenre’s undeniably effective visual aesthetic without any of its problematic narrative tropes. Plus, the one-offs give Derrickson plenty of opportunity for nasty, stand-alone scares. You can almost imagine ‘90s horror host (and Matt Warren favorite) Joe Bob Briggs running down the checklist. Gardening Fu? Check. Deck Chair Fu? Check. Lawnmower Fu? Check. Not one, but two (2) instances of Egregious Exposition Delivered by a Literally Skyped-In Vincent D’Onofrio, Who’s Pasty Pixilated Orb of a Head Looks Like Nothing So Much as a Fleshy Zeppelin Hovering Over a Swath of Fruit-Pie Enriched Grassland? Check, check, and check.
Sinister’s only fumble is that it doesn’t reach much of a climax. But the film’s rules and internal logic are so clear and consistent that its ending feels not just inevitable, but predestined. It’s as much of a closed ecosystem as anything in Looper. I also appreciated the film’s use of technology, which was both tasteful and realistic (lacking a flashlight, Ellison uses an iPhone screen to investigate a darkened attic.) And Sinister ranks high in the Macbook Usage Verisimilitude Hall of Fame, right alongside David Fincher’s Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult.
You wouldn’t think a good scary movie is too much to ask for from Hollywood, and Sinister is an example of the genre done right—despite the fact that it heavily implies that anyone watching it is damned with an infernal Sumerian blood curse. Luckily in Sinister’s case, it’s worth it.