Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson
I'm proud have been well ahead of the curve on Sinister. It was received lukewarmly and not without some hostility back in 2012; if it still managed to be a box office hit, making lots of money for its production company, Blumhouse, to some degree that's because the Blumhouse model at the time pretty much precluded "not making lots of money" as a real possibility. Yet Sinister has had a robust afterlife, carving out a small space for itself against the grand canvas of cinematic horror. It's now old enough to be cited as a formative horror movie experience for a lot of people significantly younger than me; given how much I liked it even at the time, I'm not above calling it "formative" myself. That sentiment can still elicit rolled eyes and derision, for Sinister's rehabilitation has never been complete; one can point to its enlarged reputation, but all "enlarged" means is it went from "you know, the one that's not Insidious" to "divisive old horror movie some people think is a minor generational touchstone."
But at least that is a legacy, one testified to by the excitement over co-writer/director Scott Derrickson's new horror movie, The Black Phone (an excitement which is unusual for that filmmaker, in fact, though truthfully this isn't particularly unfair to him). But it's also a legacy burnished by being declared THE SCARIEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME! in terms of beats-per-minute by a cute scientific study that's pretty spurious in a lot of ways. I don't know, I could be persuaded: through some malign combination of its construction, its world-class lead performance, and above all its simple yet terrifyingly intelligent premise, Sinister has genuine staying power. I've seen this movie at least seven times, and I still turned on the lights halfway through. Maybe we'll never agree it's even a classic, let alone on the list of "greatest horror movies ever" (which is not exactly also "the scariest," but there's certainly overlap), but I think it's reasonably uncontroversial to say that it's at least the best Blumhouse movie from the Blumhouse Era of horror, when Blumhouse still had a tightly-constrained company style and the narrowly-conceived mission to tell broadly-similar haunted house stories at the kind of budgets you would today consider a typo, or a joke. (Sinister's $3 million budget is just mind-blowingly well-used.)
So: recreating a nightmare suffered by its other co-writer, C. Scott Cargill, after experiencing the video terror of The Ring, Sinister begins with the slap in the face of its title sequence, the significance of which will only clarify itself in carefully laid-out stages. This is a Super 8 short film with a visible sprocket hole, which details with cold documentary calm the death of four human bodies: two adults and two children, their heads stuffed in sacks, arms bound, and necks attached by nooses to the branch of a large oak somewhere in North America; the ropes are tied to an opposite branch that is presently being sawed away by an obscure figure higher in the tree, and when it goes, the weight hangs the four until, at length, they stop moving. The film stops and the title appears. There are no opening credits. There's a harshness to this, which is the main thing, though it's also a clever way to introduce you to the story, since the plot, after its fashion, is about the search for the obscure underground filmmaker who directed it.
That brings us to one Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), an utterly-failed novelist who at least, once upon a time, managed to make his name as a big-deal true crime journalist, thanks to a decade-old book that helped solve a cold case murder. Ellison's star has fallen since: his last two books didn't just tank, the latter was apparently being debunked within months of its publication, leaving him disgraced and desperate. And so when we meet Ellison, he and his family—wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley)—are in the process of moving into their new house in exurban Pennyslvania, which they describe, anyway, as something of a downgrade from their original home. It was, nevertheless, a really good deal, and we discern exactly why when we enter the home, and realize that the big bay windows in the kitchen open up on the backyard where four people were hanged to death from a big oak tree. Nobody's even bothered to get rid of the snapped limb that dragged them upwards to their doom yet. Ellison knows all this, though he has endeavored to keep this from his wife. His cover's almost blown, however, when they're met on moving day by the local sheriff (Fred Thompson), who makes it clear he would prefer Ellison not be in his jurisdiction at all, and being specifically here actively offends him.
But besides the place just being a real steal, Ellison has a design for moving into the death house: it is here, soaking in the morbidity of it, that he intends to solve the four murders, discover what happened to the family's third child, who went missing, and write a true crime classic to beat them all. The house turns out to be very enthusiastic about giving up its secrets, and Ellison gets his first clues in a box of old "home movies," labeled with ironically-innocuous descriptions of their content, such as "Hanging Out," which—well, we've already covered "Hanging Out." Piqued that the killer apparently returned to deposit this box of documentary evidence, Ellison marinates in the killer's footage, watching and rewatching it, and piecing together a theory about a cult of family annihilators and child kidnappers centered upon the man—the entity—that he discovers in the margins of every one of these snuff films. To his credit, Ellison's theory is right, but his theory is direly incomplete so long as he continues to assume that he's dealing with something human and rationally explicable; but as noted by the sheriff's deputy that Ellison suborns into his skullduggery (James Ransone), he wouldn't spend even one night in this clearly haunted house, and the longer Ellison keeps watching his movies, the more his and his family's fates are sealed. Maybe they always were.
So... is it just too obvious to even talk about? I feel like I see it mentioned less often than its vital importance to Sinister's power to scare would suggest it should be talked about, and that's that this is a movie about a demon—or a god, if, in Sinister's mythology, there's even any difference—who lives inside movies. If you watch his movies, he comes for you. You are watching him right now. That is a premise that, done right, doesn't just work on the nerves, but gnaws at them, flays them, jumps up and down on what's left of them.
It is done very, very right. Maybe not entirely perfectly: there's plenty of reasons to get mildly annoyed with Sinister, some of which are bound up in why it works, some of which probably could have been avoided. The actual big one is its jokey bullshit final frame jump scare, of course, which Derrickson included because he felt his movie had been too heavy, which is the problem—Sinister is extravagantly heavy for a nominally-junky Blumhouse picture, and while well-built jump scares have been a major part of its arsenal (is it not a 2010s horror film?), that final frame gag feels like such a tonal shift that even when it was repeated, as homage, in its much more carnivalesque sequel, it still felt trivializing and dumb. (It wouldn't even be that bad if it were post-credits, you know?)
The more minor nitpicks can be much more easily ignored, but picking nits is fun. Particularly, there's a slight clunkiness with this screenplay, which diminishes the characters' offscreen reality, and demands they stick pretty much to their roles without asking inconvenient questions such as might derail the plot ("golly, Mr. Oswalt, where did you get all these images of murder mid-commission?"; "is this definitive video evidence that my house is haunted?"; et cetera). I'm also slightly bugged by the way the snuff films are staggered across the film. Of course they need to be, but there's no way our detective-scribe wouldn't watch them immediately in a block. (Hell, it would've only taken fifteen minutes.) But pretty much all of this is part of the contract you make with any horror movie, it'll scare you, and you won't be a bitch about what it needs to do to get there; still, there are several different threads here you don't want to pull. There's a deeper critique that goes back to Sinister's initial release, which is that its demon, Bughuul ("played" by Nicholas King in the sense that standing around menacingly in makeup still earns you a screen credit, and explicated in a fun cameo from Vincent D'Onofrio as a Movie-Movie Occult Professor) sucks. I don't agree with that, though I suppose I see the argument: he's maybe a little too "frontman for a shitty metal act and/or fifth member of KISS," but this is as much down to me having seen Sinister 2, where Bughuul is trotted out about twice as often, and the visual suffers badly from being made more pristine.
We don't actually see him much in Sinister, however, and when we do it is almost exclusively in mediated form, just a smeary chunk of grain in blow-ups of digitized frames of Super 8 film, and through the haze and murk, those eyeless black sockets look terrifying. Conceptually, I think there's not a thing wrong with him. I'll level with you, the "monster who lives in movies (and, before the movies, lived in images and icons, going back to Babylon and before Babylon, perhaps as long as human hands and human imagination have given him a portal into our world)" makes Bughuul my favorite horror movie monster ever; and the initial impetus for Bughuul, an update of (duh) the Boogeyman, is retrofitted well against the "ancient god" overlay. (Whereas "Bughuul" is still a cooler name than, e.g., "Pazuzu," if perhaps not a cooler name than "Gozer.") Being ancient, it even fits that he would be decades behind the times technologically and hanging on to vintage recording media. He's called "Mr. Boogey" by his child victims, who make their own childish renderings, and if I have one more real complaint about the film (though this is the type of complaint that only comes from watching it many times), I kind of wish they'd gotten more than one art department assistant to draw pictures that are supposed to have come from a half-dozen different kids. Okay, two more complaints: I don't like the Hammer horror glowing poison.
Much more forgivably, we have characters who just refuse to turn on the fucking lights, but let's loop back to that in a moment. Sinister winds up doing a lot more than just frightening you with a concept, and is in fact an astonishingly tight character study. It helps that Derrickson managed to get Ethan Hawke, who has been an astonishingly good actor since he was also a child, and very good at these types of hubris-prone characters who are often deluding themselves as to what precisely they're wishing for, even when they get it and they don't like it.
There's a splendid piece of shorthand that nails Ellison Oswalt down, when he's just watched some of the films, and fully understands that the killer's still interested in this house and presumably anybody who's moved in, and is prepared to simply leave, like a normal person; but he spies a copy of his old successful book on his shelf, and forges ahead. One of the spookier things is that you can't quite know if it actually matters, but there's certainly no escape after this, and it was all Ellison's fault even if we can look at it objectively and find his motivations understandable. It's frankly a very nice new home he's bought, but they really have downgraded (we eventually see the Oswalts' old house, which more closely resembles an English manor or, like, an elementary school). He doesn't want to write textbooks—but would you? His wife is presented as "right" but, you know, she doesn't even work, and although this is more of a plot hole than character revelation, she's not even engaged enough with the family's finances to already know they moved into a murder house; she makes her arguments from a very particular role as a stay-at-home mom and while the movie gives those arguments credence, even within its mode as a domestic drama, Ellison's counter-arguments are not bad. And he likely does really believe, on some level, that he's doing good, necessary work. Ordinarily, he wouldn't even be wrong, and the tension between his sense of purpose and his most craven desires could be happily maintained. (There's a nifty bit of parallelism, too, with the author who makes his living by telling gruesome stories, and the monster who literally is a gruesome story. With its true crime writer and emphasis on analog horror and Internet research, maybe Sinister was just ever-so-slightly ahead of its time.) It's remarkable that "character study" isn't even Sinister's "point," and still does it better than horror movies where it is the point.
But there comes a juncture where Ellison does admit he was wrong. It shouldn't even be too late! But it is. Hawke plays every beat of this flawlessly, from his disgusted-but-even-more-fascinated flushes of excitement at working on a hot case, to his not-as-subtle-as-his-character-thinks-it-is condescension to "Deputy So-and-so," to his stress-drinking himself to sleep while he watches his old interviews from when he wasn't a twice-failed has-been. Not to mention, obviously, the usual horror movie stuff of being scared out of his mind. And it's good that Hawke's good, because this is very close to a single-hander, the modal image of the film being Hawke sitting in an implausibly dark room degrading his sanity and soul by exposing his eyes to horror movies.
Which loops us back to how Derrickson built his horror movie, mostly by refusing to put lights in it. That's the glib way of putting it, and it is kind of his thing when he does horror, though this is by a good margin his most carefully-applied aesthetic of gloom and shadow. (One of the things it was obviously supposed to evoke was the lighting in a movie theater: much of the time the only source of light in Ellison's study, when the projector isn't on, is a series of dim little LEDs, built into his shelves, like the guidelights in a darkened auditorium.) Derrickson's done the work here, establishing the house and environs in daylight, and it helps, anyway, that this is next-of-kin to an actual single-location film. It's never just slopped on, and while cinematographer Christopher Norr wisely errs on the side of unreadable obscurity, he does a terrific job shaping Hawke out of the darkness with edge-lighting and the reflected light of screens and monitors. There's one perfect close-up of Hawke watching the films—Sinister, surprisingly, isn't actually that gory, and almost all the actual violence here is contained completely in the images that are superimposed on Hawke's own eyes, the screen reflecting in his glasses, linking spectacle and spectator forevermore.
The snuff films do get all the attention, and not unfairly so: they're chilling little scenelets of well-organized yet self-amused ritual murder, ranging from mass drowning to mass burning, and the use of silent Super 8 makes them feel not just old, but decayed and diseased and moreover, actually dangerous, that is, potentially real documentaries of death, like something forbidden that you should not be watching. (Contemporaneously, this has the added resonance of being a horror movie about watching found footage horror movies.) Meanwhile, the films being silent is no liability; it simply adds to their nauseous realism. But then, it's not without accompaniment: the score is by Christopher Young, though I have no idea how much is his; it's a collaged-together thing that bleeds across the film's reality, invoking black metal and the voices of children and the rattle of old machinery, almost more of a work of sound design than music. The film does, after all, love its mixed media collage: there are at least four different types of moving-picture media presented in some way or another, including the 35mm of the present day "diegesis" (though the whole point is the slippage between them), and that's not counting Ashley's penchant for painting on walls, which rapidly demonstrates more awareness of her father's work than she ought to have.
Derrickson mixes up the modes of horror, too: the snuff films are the snuff films, and the jump scares are the jump scares (there are a couple that are arguably "cheap," but even these help deepen the family dynamic); and sometimes he gets chintzy, which produces the most variable results here (that day-glo kool-aid is just a no good very bad idea, but I do like it when Bughuul moves within a printed image). There is also, famously, that weird scene in the middle that feels playful, even arty, a game of hide-and-seek with the juvenile ghosts Bughuul's collected on this trip into our reality. It borders on interpretive dance, and is one of the most unusual horror sequences of its day. Sinister is special in many ways, after all, but what really completes it is how utterly it commits. The cagey way to say that is that it's as uncompromising a horror film as the mainstream produces; but truthfully, it's uncompromising for any stream. It's still a "fun" movie, a vehicle for giving you the shivers. But it is, fundamentally, as nihilistic as horror gets.