Fantastic Fest Review: The Excellent & Unflinchingly Bleak "Sinister" Is The Darkest Mainstream Horror Movie In Years

Fantastic Fest Review: The Excellent & Unflinchingly Bleak "Sinister" Is The Darkest Mainstream Horror Movie In Years

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars:: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Michael Hall D'addario, Clare Foley
Running time: 110 minutes
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Score: 8/10

only have one simple task on their minds: to disturb the audience with something they've never seen before. Though it'd be criminal to spoil the film's opening image here, let's just say this: Sinister earns its rightful place in the all-time memorable horror canon before its title card even appears. Backed by a strange electronic score, which immediately unsettles with an almost alien repetition of unearthly sounds, the film's kick-off sets the stage for pure bleakness.

Fortunately, Derrickson's second foray into horror (the first being 2005's underrated The Exorcism of Emily Rose) follows through on its early promise of pure darkness. It's been quite a long time since a Hollywood-backed scare flick has gone for jugular as clinically and successfully as Sinister; for that, it's an important genre highpoint.

It doesn't hurt matters that Derrickson and Cargill nabbed an A-list actor to lend the production an undeniable credibility. Giving an all-in, dynamic performance, Ethan Hawke navigates through Sinister's horrific terrain with commanding complexity, playing Ellison, a struggling true crime writer who's desperate to repeat the massive, best-selling numbers of his first book. Thinking he's found the material that will finally snap his book-shelf losing streak, Ellison relocates—along with his loving wife (Juliet Rylance), young son (Michael Hall D'Addario), and even younger daughter (Clare Foley)—to a suburban home where two adults and two children were hung from a tree in the backyard; the littlest daughter, however, went missing. Shortly after settling into the new house, Ellison ventures up to the attic and finds a box filled with Super 8 film reels, and that's when Sinister's real nightmare fuel begins to generate unease.

Those "home movies," totaling five in all, provide Sinister with its most ghoulish sequences, depicting ritualistic multiple homicides with a degree of morbid creativity rarely ever seen in a mainstream horror picture. Derrickson's restrained approach to the found-footage segments (and, since Hawke's character literally finds the footage here, Sinister is arguably the definitive movie of that kind) relies solely on dread-soaked atmosphere, strengthened by some bizarre yet masterfully utilized song choices and authentic Super 8 film stock. By showing three of the five reels during Sinister's first act, Derrickson cleverly establishes the film's at times overwhelming sense of this-isn't-going-to-end-well chilliness. And, boy, does Cargill's script see that through until the brutal, haunting conclusion.

Sinister continually reaches for new, disorienting ways to mine terror, from an intriguing, occult-based mythology to an all-black-clad deity known as "Bagul," or, "the eater of children," a seriously formidable antagonistic presence. Thus, it's a shame that Derrickson could't resist the allure of cheap jump scares, at least three of which dampen otherwise spot-on moments of the macabre. Once the film ends, though, its few drawbacks quickly disappear and what's left is a surplus of images that sear into the mind and change the way one looks at trees, swimming pools, and lawnmowers, amongst other components of mortality. A triumphant exercise in pitch-black supernatural storytelling, Sinister is the real deal.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Tags: fantastic-fest, sinister, ethan-hawke, scott-derrickson, c-robert-cargill
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