This difference between Bibbs’ enthusiastic review of Sinister and my lukewarm mild recommendation is indicative of the different ways we read horror films. I don’t get scared so if the central purpose of a movie is to scare me, it’s not going to work. That might sound counterintuitive. Isn’t that the only way to measure a horror movie? Not to me. I like stories regardless of genre, and I love the Saw movies for their mystery and philosophy, I love the Nightmare on Elm Street movies for their fantastical creativity, and the Final Destination movies are just wildly inventive. The Exorcist is still a great movie but I’m not afraid of demons. I may be the only person alive who can watch The Exorcist alone late at night but I’m only watching the struggle between secular and spiritual, and it still works.
So Sinister is really a horror movie about scaring you, and I can see how it is effective for people who let it work on them. For me, I can appreciate the craft of it, and the story is mildly intriguing. I don’t mean to sound backhanded, but I’m just trying to articulate how the mystery may not be mind blowing on its own, though it is equally well crafted. I’m just removing the film’s biggest hook because I’m not worried that the ghosts from the Super 8mm film are going to get me. Sinister has both the intellectual and the visceral, and perhaps I missed out on the visceral side.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author who moves his family into a murder house for his next book. But the old murder isn’t even the scary part. Ellison finds a box of 8mm films showing there’s even more horror behind the house than he ever thought.
Between mine and Bibbs’ reviews I think you can get a sense of both the practical and visceral assets of Sinister. Exploring the film further on Blu-ray only illuminates more of those achievements, including some I perhaps missed the first time.
Director Scott Derrickson has enough to say to fill two commentary tracks. His director’s commentary is consistently technical and aesthetic. He’ll explain how the camera he used or the filming location was vital to the tone of the film. Then his commentary track with co-writer C. Robert Cargill gives him an all new springboard. He talks about largely different factors of the film on each track, with only brief overlap. It’s not just separated by directing and writing though. He definitely shares some directorial decisions in the Cargill track too. Plus, if you know Cargill’s work as Ain’t It Cool’s Masswyrm, you won’t be disappointed by his references to other favorite movies.
The visual mood of the film looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. There is so much black space, so many shots composed of darkness, the Blu-ray captures it beautifully. The Arri, which Derrickson mentions on one of his tracks, must be great at keeping darkness pitch black while still capturing the lit portions of the scene. The 8mm footage is a striking contrast too, but it doesn’t look glaring. It’s a faithful representation of 8mm that settles into the hi-def world perfectly.
You’ve seen some of the deleted scenes already in CraveOnline’s exclusive clip. If you liked that, there’s even more Angela Bettis in almost five minutes of deleted material. The bonus features are a bit cleverer than the standard “making of.” One feature focuses on real true crime authors, the other on real murder houses. The latter answers some real questions about just how realtors can ethically deal with these properties. I’m still not sold on the Villisca Ax House despite the paranormal activity the documentary crew seemed to capture, but I like the discussion.
Sinister is really well done. It creates solid characters, flawed (moving into the murder house, hello?) but sympathetic. The world is layered and built up effectively. These are all the things we ask every movie to do and so few deliver, so perhaps for that, as well as its effective “scares” (so I’ve heard) it is better than my initial analysis.