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PLEASE NOTE: This is a film only review.
About the Film
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Sinister was released in 2012 and is a supernatural horror film which is directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C.Robert Cargill. Ethan Hawke stars in this film as a true-crime writer (Ellison Oswalt). He discovers a box of home movies in their new home that he and his family have just moved into. Little does he know that these movies put his family including his daughter and son in danger? When I first saw this film advertised in October I really wanted to do to see it, how-ever I tend to wait until films come out on DVD's so I can enjoy watching it in the comfort of my own home. I borrowed the DVD off my sister and watched it over the weekend. The film is rated as a 15, so I didn't expect it to be really, really good as I might find an age 18 film.
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*** WARNING - MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
The film starts off with what I found a rather disturbing scene which depicts a family of four beneath a tree with wooden hoods over their heads and nooses around their neck. An unseen figure saws through one of the branches acting as a counterweight, causing their deaths by hanging. True Crime Writer Ellison Oswalt is trying to write a new book after his last one was a fail and he moves into the murdered family's home with his wife, son and daughter. His daughter is a gifted artist who enjoys painting and she is allowed to draw on her walls and we see her paint some beautiful horse picture on her wall with rain clouds. Ellison is the only one who knows that they have moved into a house where a murder was committed and he hides this from his family. We see 3 different policemen at the beginning of the film that aren't too keen on Ellison being on the neighbour due to him interfering with police cases and writing books about crimes committed and the police wrongly accusing some people. Ellison intends on using the murders committed to write his new book and he hopes that his research will turn up the fate of the 5th member of the family which we saw hanging who went missing after the murders were committed.
The majority of the film is based in the house in which they have moved into and Ellison completing research in order to try and write his new book which he promises his wife will be a success. Shortly after moving into the house their son starts experiencing night terrors and he later finds out what happened in the house where they are living. When Ellison goes up to the attic to put some boxes up there he notices a box which has an old recorder and some home videos in it. Curious he takes the box to his office downstairs where no-one else is allowed. He puts on the first film and is shocked by what he sees. All the movies depict families being murdered in various different ways and include the hanging that we see at the beginning of the film.
Ellison notices a demonic figure in one of the video's and then decides to look back at the other videos to see if he can see the same demonic figure in all the videos, sure enough he does and he tries to do research and get help in finding out what this demonic figure is. In the film we also see child drawn pictures which show a figure which they call 'Mr Boogie'; this is the demonic figure that he spots in all of the video's where the families are being murdered. Ellison decides to get help in researching the figure and the symbols which also appear in the video's and learn that the movies were made over a number of different years and with each murder a member of the family (a child) went missing and were never found. Ellison uncovers more about the murders and his wife finds out that they are living in a house where a murder was committed. After experiencing different things Ellison decides that it's time to move back to their old house. . But has he made the right choice or made things worse for him and his family?
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I have to admit that I hate things such as clowns and other things in horror/supernatural films with white faces and I didn't like the face in this film at all. In fact I disliked it so much that the film did make me jump a good 3-4 times whilst watching it. How-ever I do see this as a good thing as I haven't seen a film that has done this for ages. I thought the story of the film was good and all the actors were good at acting, although most of it is Ethan Hawke watching the movies. Some people may find the film boring as it is only really filmed in the one location which is the house. This film was a little better than I actually expected as it's one of the best films I have seen so far this year. I wouldn't class the film as horror as there isn't much blood or gore in it and I think it's more psychological more than anything else. There were some good scenes in the film which I found rather jumpy as I didn't expect certain things to happen. Although I have watched this film already I would probably watch it again. I would definitely recommend it to others to watch.
(review may also appear on ciao)
RELEASED: 2012, Cert. 15
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 110 mins
DIRECTOR: Scott Derrickson
PRODUCERS: Jason Blum & Brian Kavanagh-Jones
SCREENPLAY: Scott Derrickson & C Robert Cargill
MUSIC: Chris Norr
Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt
Juliet Rylance as Tracy
James Ransone as the Deputy Sheriff
Fred Dalton Thompson as The Sheriff
Michael Hall D'Addano as Trevor
Clare Foley as Ashley
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Ellison Oswalt is a true crime writer who moves with his family to a house in Kentucky, so that he can investigate and write about some super 8 film footage he has found, which shows a strange scene of some children suspended by ropes around their necks from a long tree branch, with something unseen cutting through the tree so that the children hang to their death.
Ellison hasn't told his wife and children that the house they've moved into is one where the hanging murders took place, but once installed in their new home, weird things start to happen. Ellison's son Trevor begins to have night terrors which the family thought were a thing he'd grown out of, and Ashley draws strange pictures on her bedroom walls....plus, things go bump in the night!
As Ellison watches and studies the super 8 footage, he begins to see a connection between the different films in that they all depict murders which have taken place over a number of years, and with some off the record help from the local Deputy Sheriff, a gruesome catalogue of events comes to light.
Meanwhile, Ellison is becoming increasingly uncomfortable at some of the things he sees and hears in the house.
Sinister opens very well, creating a creepy atmosphere almost from the very first frame. Even though the scene is simply a family moving into a house in a new area, there is something about the camera angles mingled with the film score which sets the mood perfectly.
Although the supernatural elements begin almost immediately, I still found Sinister to initially be a fairly slow-burner, but it wasn't too much of a problem, as I was gripped.
I thought that Ethan Hawke played the part of Ellison Oswalt very well, him coming across as natural and realistic, but I really was irritated by Juliet Rylance's portrayal of Tracy, Ellison's wife. I found her acting very hammy and unrealistic, almost as if she were reading her lines from an auto-cue, and her expressions of emotion (such as anger) just weren't in the slightest bit convincing....a shame, because her input ruined what overall is quite a good film.
The music to Sinister is really weird, being a mixture of avant-garde material and something which I can't categorise, but it suited the film so very well and went a long way towards creating an atmosphere of chilling tension.
Whilst watching, I could see a lot of similarities between Sinister and the film Paranormal Activity. I don't know if they are in any way connected (e.g. perhaps the same film crew), but the way the supernatural elements are put across is done in exactly the same way....in the style of a creeping atmosphere with (initially) just slight little off key happenings, gradually building up to something more direct.
Although I was totally absorbed in the film, there were a couple of points where although I understood what was going on, I couldn't work out how Ellison managed to get hold of the super 8 film of the actual murder (where the children were hanged during what looked initially like some sort of game), as who would have been behind the camera?
Sinister does have quite a few chilling moments though, and in parts is pretty creepy. I did find myself wondering what on earth would happen next, and for me such is the hallmark of a good film, as the storyline isn't absolutely predictable.
I have to confess though that I didn't like the ending much, nor did I entirely understand it. That ending, together with the very poor acting from Juliet Rylance, are both blots on the landscape for me in this otherwise very well constructed film that watched in a certain frame of mind, possibly could have scared the living daylights out of me.
All in all, Sinister is quite a dark, tense film and it made a refreshing change to watch a horror type production that isn't riddled with gore. I was on edge for most of the time and totally caught up in the storyline. Were the ending better and had a different actress been chosen to play Tracy, Ellison's wife, then I'd have no hesitation in awarding this the full whack of stars, but those two issues have forced me to downgrade it to four.
This is definitely a fairly scary chiller which I feel sure would appeal to people who love a good film that has a strong supernatural element, and even if you don't quite understand the same parts that I was a little confused over, I don't think such would entirely spoil the viewing experience....as it didn't mine.
At the time of writing, Sinister can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
New: from £10.18 to £14.36
Used: from £10.00 to £21.59
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Ethan Hawkes plays True-Life crime writer Ellison Oswalt in this 2012 supernatural horror film from the producers of "Insidious". Desperate for another best seller he's taken an interest in the murders of a smalltown family who were found hanging from a tree as well as the disappearance of one of the children. Relocating his whole family to the scene of the murder Ethan slowly starts to gather the information he needs for his book but when he finds some old film reels in the attic of the murder house that show other family-targetted murders he quickly realises that the atrocities that occurred there are just the latest in a long history of similar crimes. Is there a serial killer who's been operating for over 40 years at large or are there more sinister forces behind the mystery and just who exactly has been capturing the murders on video tape? Ethan is about to find out...
I've been waiting for the DVD release of Sinister since I first read an online synopsis of the film, the fact that the team behind "Insidious" were putting together another supernatural horror piqued my interest as I thoroughly enjoyed the previous film so I was grateful when Lovefilm sent me a copy shortly after its release. Whilst Insidious provoked mixed reviews from people I was one of those who could forgive the much aligned third act of the film so had high expectations from "Sinister" and fortunately for me I thoroughly enjoyed the thrill ride it offered.
The film opens with a shocking impact, the grainy footage of the hanging murders are the first thing you see and this immediately sets the tone for what is about to come. You know from the offset that there's something very wrong happening and the clever use of 'found footage' video along with a muted colour palette help to create a sense of dread and foreboding. After the initial shock of the opening the film takes it down to a steady pace as the characters of Ellison and his family are introduced as they move into their new home and we get to find out what motivates the author to write the things he does.
The character of Ellison is quite self centred and selfish I thought, he wants to recapture the glory of a previous best seller that he wrote many years in the past and doesn't seem to be that bothered about the upheaval and impact his choices have on his wife and children. He's driven by ambition and the memory of success and has high hopes that he can work out what really happened in the house he has moved his family into and discover what really happened to the missing child. Finding a box of film reels in his attic gives him somewhat of a dilemma once he starts to watch them as he realises that these are evidence and should be handed over to the police but his ambition gets in the way and he figures that if he can identify a serial killer who has been operating for more than 40 years then his book will be even more of a success.
Whilst Ellison is a flawed character you do kind of understand his ambition and Ethan Hawke does play him well even if comparisons can be drawn to Jack Nicolson's "Johnny" character in the film The Shining. The rest of the cast are there as support really, neither his wife nor children are developed all that well as this is a film that focuses its attention firmly on the lead man. This isn't a criticism as such, everyone else is surplus to requirements really and are there simply to react to what is happening around them. All the parts are well played even if Juliet Rylance's character of Tracy, Ellison's wife, could be accused of being blindingly naive and a little bit stupid for agreeing to certain decisions that are made but dumb choices in a horror film are pretty much expected. Ellison is (literally) on a slow road to Hell but he doesn't know it and as the film begins to reveal its secrets the audience gets taken on the journey with him as we discover just who is behind the murders and, more importantly, the filmed video footage.
It's a film that does take hold and the sense of creeping menace is palpable at times, there are plenty of scares and shocks that unsettle and some very clever use of camera work and eerie imagery make the film a compelling watch. Some could complain that it's quite long and drawn out but I enjoyed the pacing of the film as it gave the chance to tell the story without rushing from one scare sequence to the next and although it could be considered a convoluted storyline once certain information is revealed it does make sense and is very well explained without being contrived. I certainly enjoyed it, it's not gory or grisly but rather haunting in style and the imagery it contains is definitely memorable.
The music soundtrack helps to create the sense of dread and the minimal use of 'jump scares' means that it doesn't rely on cheap shocks shoe-horned in just for the sake of it. The film is eerily quiet at times with gentle background music which heightens the senses and when it goes for all out shocks it does deliver some punches. I won't discuss who is behind the murders or their 'Sinister' associations as this is something that has to be discovered, some won't like the supernatural elements as they are perhaps a little reminiscent of "Insidious" and I suspect that many won't like the identity of the film maker(s) behind the video footage but for me both aspects worked very well and I was left satisfied with the conclusion of the film.
For a film that has some genuinely unsettling moments I think Sinister excels and for me is my film of the year so far, I've always been a fan of the horror genre and especially films that dabble in the Supernatural rather than out and out gore fests (even though I've watched more than my fair share of shlock horror) and for me Sinister was a well acted, well plotted film that remained with me even after the final credits rolled. It's definitely one to check out if you enjoy being frightened by subtle 'blink and you miss it' creepiness and even though it is rather long at an hour and fifty minutes I thought the time flew by.
Five stars as a rating from me and a film I would watch again. To buy "Sinister" it'll set you back around £11.00 for the retail DVD with the Blu Ray edition costing a few pounds more. If there were any bonus features on my rental DVD I didn't watch them so this has been a film only review.
Thanks for reading.
~ The plot ~
A true crime writer and his family are moving home. Ellison Oswalt's latest project concerns an unsolved murder case of a family of four that were found hanging in their back garden. A third child of the doomed family disappeared and has never been seen again. Unfortunately the broke writer chose to move to the very house of the murders in the hope that it would provide inspiration for his much needed bestseller. As they are settling in, Ellison finds a box of old Super 8 films in the attic. The footage is not only of the hangings but shows other families being murdered, some stretching back to the 60s. Who made the films and what will happen to Ellison and his family now they are living there?
~ The characters ~
Being set mainly in the new Oswalt home and with only a handful of people on screen at least there isn't the complaint that the film introduces unnecessary characters.
Ellison Oswalt isn't a sympathetic character. When he realises what the super 8 films contain, he should of course hand them over to the police as evidence but Sinister would end there if he did. He realises if he can get one over on the local police and perhaps solve some unsolder murders it could propel him back to the bestsellers list. In letting his ambitions override his family's safety he makes a Faustian pact which we watch slowly unravel. Despite that, Hawke still manages to bring some credibility to the character and I was hoping for a good outcome. His character's choice of natty cardigans was criminal though.
His wife, who has very little to do apart from occasionally bicker with Oswalt and announce that she's running the kids to school wasn't well developed. It isn't clear why Tracey would allow her family to be uprooted again (this isn't the first time) so that her husband can chase his dream. Even less so when we realise that they bought this house sight unseen and she isn't aware that it is where the massacre took place. There is one rather vigorous scene between the two which feels genuine as the reality of their situation sinks in but otherwise there's no real chemistry between her and Hawke. To be fair this seems to be the film debut of Rylance although in parts her acting is as creaky as the floorboards.
The two children's characters are slightly better developed which is just as well as their roles are more pivotal. Trevor begins to have night terrors and sleepwalks once the other kids at school let on about his home's history. Ashley, who is allowed to paint on her bedroom wall, develops a passion for summoning disturbing images.
Of the supporting cast, one worth a mention is the local deputy Sheriff. Smarter than he seems at first, he's eager to help Ellison write his book in the hope that he'll feature in the acknowledgments when it's published. He's also instrumental in pointing out the connection between all the video footage towards the end. Every good horror flick should have a supernatural element and that falls to a pagan deity called Baghuul here. If you can overlook the fact that the character looks like he'd just stepped off the stage at a Kiss concert he does look, well, spooky.
~ The screenplay ~
When it comes to fantastic dialogue or acting, the horror genre is usually at the back of the movie queue. This film at nearly 2 hours long doesn't really have either a unique screenplay or great actors to hold a viewers attention but it does have plenty of the required shocks and most of them I really didn't see coming.
The film opens with four hooded people standing under a tree with nooses around their necks. We watch as a branch gets sawn off the tree. Acting as a counterweight, as it falls so its weight lifts and hangs the people. A grisly ending for them and a startling opening for viewers.
Thankfully, aside from the footage Ellison finds the screenplay relies more on tension and mood than outright violence. Ellison increasingly spend his time analysing the videos with the curtains drawn, meaning the viewers lose sense of time alongside him. Even when its daylight and Tracey is taking the kids to school the house is in darkness.
The film combines three themes: found video footage as seen in The Blair Witch Project, the idea that film itself can be evil a la The Ring/Ringu and haunted house scares as in the Paranormal Activity franchise. Not to mention that the central character is a down at luck writer who moves his family somewhere isolated so he can write in peace. Still, younger audiences may be indifferent to the connections with Jack Nicholson even if they were easy to spot.
The escalating sense of dread I can still feel watching The Shining isn't present here though. The sight of little Danny cycling round and around empty corridors at the Overlook was enough to chill my blood. Neither the wit or the funding were present here, but what there is are loud noises and yes, things do very much go bump in the night.
One more niggle is that there isn't really a good explanation given for the family having moved there in the first place. "I had to move here. The new story I'm writing is here," Ellison tells his wife. On that basis, how did Roald Dahl write his books? Perched on top of a peach? A giant one maybe.
Naomi Watts carried off her role in the Ring films with credibility, despite what seems a daft premise (the idea of a spooky girl crawling out of a telly sounds ridiculous but it nevertheless scared me rigid). Hawke too is surprisingly well cast and manages to carry off the role well.
Although the house is in rural Pennsylvania the film could be set anywhere. a modest budget of $3m was perhaps one reason, another being that bland, characterless houses are a blank canvas. Rather than get distracted by nick nacks over the mantelpiece the audience sees every little movement - perhaps more than the characters on screen. This worked a treat in the Paranormal films, but if that was Derrickson's intention here, it was partly scuppered by the busy musical score.
Those who enjoyed the film The Shining may feel this is a poor imitation. Neither Nicholson's long descent into madness or the beautiful scenery at the Overlook hotel is matched here. Others who are hoping to see a more gory flick may also come away disappointed. Personally I'm not sure Sinister will stand up to a second viewing, but I would still recommend watching it once. The music design is attacked with too much relish and I found those 8mm films truly unnerving, but its still a much better film overall than a lot of nonsense in this genre.
Rated 15 due to the scenes involving the grainy video footage which were realistic enough to be disturbing.
Images for Sinister (DVD).
It's a shame characters in horror films leave things until too late to put the pieces together. They spend an agonising part of the running time going through all sorts of danger and jump scares but refuse to admit that there's something wrong with the house they're living in. It's not entirely clear just what Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is trying to achieve when he moves into the house where an entirely family was hanged in their garden. Sure, he's a true-crime writer but did he really need to drag his family into the scene of the crime? He of course keeps this little secret to himself, with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two children completely unaware of what they are in for.
Following the pattern most struggling writers do in films, he looks to Scotch for his inspiration. Knocking back a bottle every evening without the much feared consequences of a hangover, he sets up his own investigation "wall" where photographs, maps, questions, answers, print-outs, articles, and every bit of new information is put up and tied together with pieces of string. It makes very little sense to us, but Ellison seems to be pretty content and know what he's doing. But it's not until a miraculous discovery of home videos that really kicks off his novel-writing process. Well, he doesn't actually ever write a single word of his new book, but rather the film ends with him running around in circles trying to solve the deadly mystery that he's wrapped himself around in. He's convinced he's got the bestseller material with his latest project, something that becomes a bit of an unhealthy obsession for him.
So what exactly have been recorded in these family home videos? Initially they appear harmless, of various happy looking families having a good time in regular activities you would expect normal American people partake in; garden party, pool party, barbecue party etc. But in a series of bizarre twists, the videos go on to record some horrific murders. Well crafted and meticulously planned and executed, the families helplessly fall victim to some grizzly, nasty massacres. But what do these seemingly different victims have in common? A figure captures Ellison's eyes. It's a creepy clown-resembling figure, something that looks like the mask popularly worn in the "Saw" franchise. Is this a human? Demon? Spirit? Ellison doesn't know, and he's determined to find the answers for himself, even though he is terrified every time he repeatedly catches a glimpse of this evil.
As he embarks on his investigative journalism, often aided by a wannabe helpful but slightly dim police officer (the excellent James Ransone who provides priceless offbeat comedy that works better than most of the horror elements here), he discovers links that aren't that too fascinating or complex, and it frustrates us to see how long he spends to connect the dots. It's all right there in front of him, and yet he fails to bring the evidence together. For a man who has supposedly written popular crime novels in the past, he's not too sharp when it comes to actually doing his job.
In the meantime he hears odd noises, loud thuds, opened doors which were surely locked, electronic equipment that was surely switched off, and this carries on for several nights, as Ellison is incapable of taking a hint. There are malicious beings messing with him and his family. He also has a son who suffers from absurd night terrors that come off as unintentionally hilarious episodes rather than as a truly shocking occurrence. The young boy is merely there to provide some red herrings for the audience and his story doesn't amount to much - he exists solely to provide some of the things that go bump in the night.
Plus there's the obligatory young daughter who sees things no one else does. Young girls in horror films traditionally turn out to be more crucial than they seem, and that also applies to just how cute and innocent they look in the beginning. They may not appear to know much, but soon they start talking to the various ghosts and spirits around the house, saying that she's "friends" with the girl who used to live here. Cryptic dialogue, spoken in a soft, high-pitched voice of an assured child showing very little emotion, drawing random pictures on the house wall; these are all textbook methods of throwing together a bunch of overused ideas.
But why does this film actually work? Despite its unnecessarily lengthy running time, it's Hawke's gripping central performance that holds everything together from start to finish. Forget the mystery, forget the horror, and forget the clichéd scares that you see coming from minutes before. What "Sinister" has done so well better than any other horror film is that it has truly found a leading man capable of genuinely conveying a range of emotions, a rarity in horror films that normally choose to go for the young ones with looks rather than talent. He inhabits his role with commitment and compelling energy that helps to sell the story, no matter just how ridiculous everything builds up to. The developments, twists and turns the family begins to face become wordy and preposterous, but despite surrounded by unsupportive set of ideas and narrative, Hawke still comes out on top, with his appropriately intense and fiery nature.
The familiar ideas do sometimes work - but the repetitive cycle the film gets itself stuck in is a tiresome one. There are gruesome deaths, some very memorable and the more squeamish amongst the crowd will most certainly have something to scream at, but there simply aren't enough to fill this at times slow and ponderous horror. It starts off with an intriguing premise: "The Ring"-like story a character stumbling across a horrific footage that marks you for all sorts of terror and violent demise. But from that point on it never builds up to anything truly substantial. The ending is a shocking one, not the kind commonly seen in films that decide to play it safe, but with "Sinister," it does redeem some points with a daring finale; a bloody, gritty finish, a stark contrast to what preceded it.