Sinister is a bit of a rarity in the horror genre. Here we have a horror film that actually tries to create its scares out of mood and atmosphere, as many filmmakers used to do it in the days of old, instead of trying to gross out its audience with buckets of blood and other grotesqueries. Nowadays, it’s a sad state of affairs where filmmakers in this genre think that the more blood they throw in, the better their film will be. That’s not saying that gore can’t be a major element, but it can’t be all that you have. If it is, there’s no real reason for the audience to be scared, but if you have mood and atmosphere, there’s no telling what a horror film could do.
Sinister is the tale of a true crime novelist, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), who has recently moved to a new house with his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their two kids. His family knows that he is there to work on a new book, but what Ellison hasn’t told them is that their new house was the site of the gruesome murder of four people. While looking around the house, he comes across a box in the attic containing an 8mm projector and several reels of film showing several murders, including the ones that took place there.
Ellison’s obsession with the murders increases as he discovers that there is something else contained in the film, the image of a creature that he soon identifies as an ancient demon. Meanwhile, strange things begin happening in the new house from his son’s night terrors returning to unexplainable noises. As he continues to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery, he soon realizes that it goes far beyond what he thought was one simple set of tragic murders.
If there’s one thing that the filmmakers behind Sinister do really well, it’s creating a film with a permeating sense of dread. Throughout the whole film, you get the sense that something terrible could happen at any moment. This is not an easy atmosphere to create, and what’s even more impressive is that the feeling lingers after the film is over. When a horror film is able to create this atmosphere with a minimal effort (the film was made for a mere $3 million), then you can truly say that the filmmakers are doing something right.
A lot of the effect comes right from the 8mm footage that Ellison finds in his attic. As I mentioned, these films show several gruesome murders that are rather unsettling, with the 8mm look making it even more so. I don’t want to give any of them away as a couple of them are a bit shocking, but I’ll just say that the effects they use, plus some clever editing really sell these films within the film.
All that being said, the film does have some issues that need to be addressed. Most horror films tend to be around 90 minutes or so, perhaps a little longer if they have a really good story going, but one of Sinister’s problems is that it runs a little too long at 110 minutes. During that runtime, it gets stuck in a bit of a rut that has Ellison investigating by day and experiencing creepy happenings at night. There wasn’t really much of a need to have the same pattern go on for nearly two hours. Again, if it had a deep mystery with lots of twists and turns, then it would be justified, but what we have here is a rather basic murder mystery that gets explained to us very simply as the film goes on.
The mystery itself also becomes rather disappointing when you begin to see the ending coming from a mile away. In any mystery, it’s never a good sign when you’re able to put the pieces together before the one investigating it goes. It’s not a terrible ending, but one that was a little more surprising and shocking would have been able to put that sense of dread to use. It certainly didn’t help that the marketing for the film was a little spoilerish. I’d go into a little more detail, but that would be even more spoilerish.
Finally, what is quite possibly the film’s biggest issue is the soundtrack, which is one of the most annoying soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a film. Not only is a lot of it simply terrible, but it also becomes really distracting, particularly during the parts where we’re getting to watch the 8mm films along with Ellison. I mentioned how the films themselves help set up the mood and atmosphere, which makes it a really strange decision to throw in music that almost derails the whole attempt. Keeping things simple, a strong theme for the rest of the film, would have done wonders here.
Overall, I’m really split on the film. It has one of the best atmospheres for a horror film I’ve seen in a long time, but there are also a few big things holding it back, so in the end, the film itself doesn’t quite get a recommendation, though it’s one that I wouldn’t steer you away from seeing either. Even though I can’t fully recommend it, it still manages to be better than a lot of the films filmmakers try to pass for horror today like Paranormal Activity, House at the End of the Street, or The Possession. Simply put, you could do far worse than Sinister.
Turning now to the technical specs of the Blu-Ray, the film is presented in a 2.40: 1, 1080p HD transfer that is one of the sharpest pictures I’ve seen in the last several months. My one complaint about the picture, and this isn’t really the fault of the Blu-Ray producers, is that a lot of the film is really, really dark, so despite the sharp picture, a lot of the night scenes are still very hard to see. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little on the soft side, but it’s nothing that turning it up won’t solve, though you might not want to given the terrible soundtrack, or if you easily jump at surprise scares.
The Blu-Ray comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with director Scott Derrickson
- Audio Commentary with writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
- Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary with Scott Derrickson)
- “True Crime Authors” Featurette
- “Living in a House of Death” Featurette
Starting with the commentaries, the first one features the director talking about how the film was made, while the second features the writers talking about different aspects of the story such as how it came to be and how it was developed. A sampling of both of these shows that they are both worth listening to as Derrickson by himself, as well as with his writing partner, have a lot of interesting things to say about the film. It’s rather convenient to have it split into two different commentaries, that way you can listen to whichever area interests you more.
The deleted scenes run about five minutes and are merely a couple of scenes that feature a neighbor of Ellison’s that he speaks to briefly about the murders, so they’re not really worth taking a look at as they add absolutely nothing to the story. The other two featurettes are extremely pointless as they don’t even have anything to do with the film itself. One talks about authors who write true crime stories, while the other talks about a house that had several people killed in it. It would have been nice had these been replaced with actual behind the scenes or making of featurettes that explored how the movie was made, but unfortunately, we don’t get any like that.
Ironically, I ended up feeling the same way about these special features that I did about the film. There is some good stuff here, but there’s also a lot that isn’t worth your time, just like the film isn’t all that bad, but there are a few problems that prevent it from being as good as it could be. This makes it a rather middling Blu-Ray release. It’s got its highs and lows, but unfortunately it tips ever so slightly toward the negative, which is a shame. A little trimming from/tinkering with the film and a couple of worthwhile featurettes would have made this an easy recommendation.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Sinister creates a fantastic horror atmosphere that will fill you with a sense of dread, but the film's stretched out mystery and awful soundtrack only serve to hold it back.