For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
At this point, I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that COVID-19 screwed a lot of things up. Somewhere far down that list is the fact that Host, the screen-life Shudder exclusive that takes place during quarantine, knocked 2012’s Sinister off as the “scariest movie of all time,” according to Science of Scare. The BroadBandChoices project, which measured heart-rate changes in 250 audience members during 40 renowned horror movies, previously crowned Sinister above modern favorites like Insidious and The Conjuring for the top spot. While any such study is a bit silly and doesn’t quite measure exactly what makes a movie “scary,” it’s no fluke that such a terrific horror entry would top the list.
Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, whose pulpy sagas like Kentucky Blood and Cold Diner Morning have scored him national attention. Desperate for another hit, he moves his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their kids, Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael D’Addario), to a Pennsylvania home where a family was murdered nearby. Early in his research for the book, he happens upon a trove of Super 8 reels stashed away in the otherwise vacant attic and fires up his film projector to investigate. What he finds is a series of gruesome “home movies” where a happy family is murdered in different ways during each film. Further sleuthing allows Ellison to conclude that something supernatural (and perhaps … sinister?) binds the footage of each of these accounts together.
With co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson sets up a properly compelling foundation around a man willing to put his wife and children at risk just for another round of success. It’s a potentially difficult protagonist to pull off but Hawke, one of the most amiable actors around, makes us believe in Ellison’s drive and struggle to taste the spoils of victory one more time. Tracy throws everything she has into her support of him and his work — “When you’re happy, we’re all happy,” she acknowledges — but makes no secret that she’s at her wit’s end with his selfish determination. We learn that the fallout from his previous book made them pariahs in the town where they previously resided, a fate Tracy understandably can’t bear to relive.
It’s a believable setup of pressure and expectation that puts Ellison in a compromised position even before the first frames of the formidable films flicker. With seemingly innocuous titles like Pool Party ‘66 and Sleepy Time ‘98, it doesn’t take long for their opening scenes of familial bliss to turn grisly in a hurry. Derrickson adds a nice directorial touch in the form of a progression (or regression, of sorts) of Ellison’s dependency on alcohol to cope with the violence he observes in his line of work. By the time he watches the second movie, he breaks out the whiskey. By the third home movie, gentleman’s on-the-rocks sips have devolved to desperate straight-up guzzles. By the fourth, the rocks glass is out of the equation entirely and it’s just Ellison vs. the bottle.
It’s not hard to see why. The Super 8 segments are masterfully crafted bits of nightmare fuel — Lawn Work ‘86 is my personal favorite — scored to supremely unsettling music from composer Christopher Norr. None of the home movies have audible dialogue but Norr’s warbly pianos and muted guitars do all the talking necessary. The terrifying sequences, which were shot using real Super 8 cameras and film stock, have a grimy quality to them that chillingly recalls the aesthetic of actual snuff films. The single-point light source limits our perspective and forces urgency on the already horrible images, drawing our focus away from who is shooting these awful films and why. The same morbid curiosity that drives audiences to slasher movies time and time again will keep them glued to the screen during these stretches of Sinister.
The other sections of spookiness in the film are a bit more rote but still quite effective, mainly comprised of Ellison chasing after bumps in the night while having too much pride to turn on some damn lights. The sources of noise turn out to be traceable to tangible objects at first before eventually giving way to apparitions that pop up with increased frequency. These ghosts could probably just float around casually, but let’s face it: It’s much more fun when their presence is a bit more demonstrative. The film’s finest jump scare, which caused my wife to make a terrified noise so embarrassing she still remembers it almost 10 years after we first saw the film in theaters, occurs at such a moment.
Grossing $87 million against its budget of $3 million (in the proud Blumhouse tradition), Sinister went on to generate an inevitable sequel that doubles down on its ultimate baddie much in the way the Cars franchise went all-in on Larry the Cable Guy for Cars 2. Without giving too much away, the monster in Sinister is frightening in his own right, but it’s the atmosphere and build-up that ultimately make his presence menacing. In the sequel, he looks like someone cosplaying as a member of Slipknot. The focus on the backstories of the ghostly children doesn’t give the film extra depth either; it just drags everything down. Sinister II isn’t the first horror sequel to miss the boat when it comes to what made its predecessor work so well, but its failings may actually make the original’s successes even more pronounced by comparison.
After directing another horror film with 2014’s Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson got sucked into the MCU to helm a little indie called Doctor Strange, whose recently delayed sequel will arrive next spring. Fellow horror director Sam Raimi taking the reins on that franchise freed Derrickson to team up again with Cargill and Hawke for The Black Phone, another supernatural chiller arriving next February. I’m doing my best to avoid trailers these days but on the strength of their work together on Sinister along with the news that Hawke will be portraying the villain instead of the hero, I’m in line for it already. No matter how that turns out, I’ll always have this 2012 classic to revisit each year when the leaves start trembling and darkness creeps up a little earlier every night.