SINISTER. Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Rated M (Mature Themes and coarse language). 110 minutes.
As a reviewer who rarely really jumps at films (after all, ‘it’s only a movie’!), I will confess to jumping any number of times during sinister – even at the last image. Not only the jumping, but frequent peculiar feelings of spine-tingling. It was the succession of things that were banging and bumping in the night, the eerie atmosphere from the opening shot of four hanged people, through the sense of ghosts and the mystery of why this was all happening. And the synthesizer score, the percussion, the pounding.
Which means that if you are prone to be unsettled during a film, you perhaps should be alert to the effects of this one.
Actually, the plot is well worked out and all explained (well not explained but story lines logically followed through. Perhaps another reason for the atmosphere is that it is all played straight, no winking at the audience or tongue-in-cheek ironies. And one can identify with the family at the centre of the story, ordinary enough but the victims of sinister powers.
Basically, it is the story of a writer who moves house so that he can do a true crime story on the spot. He does research, finds a mysterious box of old film which shows the family who have been killed, except for a missing daughter. Most of the action takes place inside the house, especially at night as the writer looks at the films and asks questions of himself. Then the bangs begin, boxes fall, loud sounds (quick cut editing with the synthesizer sounds) and he (and we) begin to be really jumpy.
The sheriff warns him off. A deputy agrees to find out information for him. His wife is supportive, but his young son and daughter start to behave strangely. He receives computer chat information from a professor who says that the signs he has seen and images at the other crime scenes lead to a cult of an ancient evil deity, Baghul (the Boogy Man). The worship of Baghul includes the sacrifice and devouring of children.
Then the ghosts appear.
The end is not what we expected when the film started but it seems more inevitable as the film goes on – and the end of the film is where all the information (with the solution worked out by the deputy) as to what has happened – and will happen.
Ethan Hawke is convincing as the author who is obsessed with his research and book, more and more tormented, more frightened. Juliet Rylance is his wife.
Scott Derrickson directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. He knows how to do eerie films – and has been most successful with Sinister.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 1st 2012.