Please excuse Judge Patrick Naugle while he changes his boxers.
Once you see him, nothing can save you.
Who doesn't love a good scare? Hollywood thinks it knows what frightens you, so they put out what seems like an endless parade of scary movies designed to get under your skin (although most fail miserably). One of the better horror movies of 2012 was the Ethan Hawke vehicle Sinister, now on DVD care of Summit.
Facts of the Case
Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke, Training Day) is a former bestselling true crime author who is hoping for one more shot at the top of the New York Times Bestseller's list. Oswald decides to move his family, including his young wife Tracy (Julie Rylance, Animal) and their two young children, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario, People Like Us) and Ashley (Clare Foley, Win Win), into a house where an entire family—save for one child that disappeared—was strapped to a tree and brutally murdered. He hopes of getting a best selling book out of the experience. As Ellison delves into the house's secrets and dark corners, he discovers something far more evil than just a serial killer, and it's something that may cost him not only his book but also his life!
The producers of Sinister also gave moviegoers the infinitely creepy Insidious, which I really liked, and 'mounted camera' thriller Paranormal Activity, which I really didn't. Sinister is much more in the vein of Insidious, thankfully eschewing the burned out "found footage" gimmick for actual, old fashioned scares. Sinister is a movie bathed in despair and darkness. It's a horror movie to be sure, but it's also a crime thriller that doesn't skimp on the details. Much of Sinister takes place at night in shadows and darkness—as all good horror films do—and it's an atmospherically tense tale that grabs hold and doesn't let go. It's rare these days to find a horror movie that actually frightens; Sinister gets the job done.
There are scenes in this movie that are completely unnerving. During one frightful sequence, Ethan Hawke's character pokes around a cavernous attic that is terrifying in its emptiness. It's not the things that he finds as much as the things that he might find; Sinister is at its best when it implies the horror instead of showing it. The home movies that Hawke's character finds are equally as nerve jangling, again eschewing gore and grizzle for implied terror. Families are hung, drowned, and burned unceremoniously and with silent menace. One video in particular, involving a lawn mower, made me jump out of my seat. It's the sign of a good horror movie when it can make a jaded "been there, seen that" movie critic like me jump two feet.
While the entire cast of Sinister does a fine job, the fact is that the film is really a one man show. Ethan Hawke spends most of the time onscreen, reacting to the Super 8 movies that he's discovered in the attic and poking around dark corners with an under lit flashlight (natch). Hawke's performance is very good, which is a nice surprise since movies like Sinister usually don't depend on an actor's thespian skill set. Juliet Rylance does a fine job as Ellison's concerned wife, although most of her scenes are to show that her and Ellison's marriage is slowly going down the tubes. Also on board in a small role is former actor-turned-politician-turned-actor (again) Fred Dalton Thompson (Cape Fear) as the town's sheriff who exudes quiet authority, and an un-credited Vincent D'Onofrio (Men in Black) as a professor helping Ellison with his research (as well as dishing out exposition for the viewer).
Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) guides with a sure hand that allows for maximum chills. Films of this ilk seem to understand that Michael Bay style editing and gross out are not the best way to unnerve an audience. Sinister doesn't rush through its story and the film isn't filled with a lot of enormous set pieces. While there are some relatively cheap scares to be found here, there's also imagery that gives goose bumps (as when Ellison's son unfolds out of a packing box like some kind of Christmas gift of the damned). It's in these small moments that Sinister truly does right by the horror genre.
I wholeheartedly endorse a film like Sinister because it feels like it's going back to the roots of pure, unadulterated horror; not grizzle, not cheap CGI, but actual scares that make your hairs stand up on end. Although the film's mythology doesn't really hold up to severe scrutiny, Sinister gets it right far more than it gets it wrong. In this day and age of watered down PG-13 horror and torture porn, that's to be commended.
Sinister is presented in a very attractive 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image quality for standard DVD is excellent; the predominant black levels are solid and color palate (or what there is of it) looks great. The image sports little to no defect and is very clear. The soundtrack is presented in a rousing Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix in English. Much like the video transfer, this audio mix is great; it features a lot of spooky surround sounds and effects that leap out of the front and rear speakers. Also included on this disc is a Dolby 5.1 mix in Spanish, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
The extra features include two audio commentaries (one by director Scott Derrickson, and a second audio track with Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill), a featurette on true crime authors, another featurette on what real estate agents do with the houses where horrible crimes have been committed, and about five minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by the director.
Sinister lives up to its name by being a creepy and wholly freaky movie. I was drawn into the story and characters and found myself on the edge of my seat all the way until the final reveal. It's not a perfect film, but it is a lot of fun for those who like being scared. Summit's DVD release features a strong audio/video presentation and a nice selection of bonus features.
An old fashioned good time at the movies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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