Director – Scott Derrickson, Screenplay – C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson, Producers – Jason Blum & Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Photography – Chris Norr, Music – Christopher Young, Visual Effects – Fuse FX (Supervisor – David Altenau), Special Effects Supervisor – Phil Beck, Jr., Makeup Effects – Danielle Noe, Production Design – David Brisbin. Production Company – Blumhouse Productions/Automatik.
Ethan Hawke (Ellison Oswalt), Juliet Rylance (Tracy Oswalt), James Ransone (Deputy So and So), Fred Dalton Thompson (Sheriff), Michael Hall D’Addario (Trevor Oswalt), Clare Foley (Ashley Oswalt), Vincent D’Onofrio (Professor Jonas)
Crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves to small town Pennsylvania with his wife Tracy and their two children. What he has not told them is that the house they have moved into was one where the previous family were hung from a tree in a bizarre murder. He is planning to write a book about the murder. Ellison finds a box of Super 8 films and a projector left in the attic. These depict the hanging, as well as the murders of other families going back to the 1960s. As he tries to draw connections between the killings, Ellison becomes aware that there is a supernatural force in the house.
Director/writer Scott Derrickson is a variable prospect. Derrickson first gained attention with the success of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), a film based on a true-life exorcism that discarded most of the essential facts to push its own evangelical Christian agenda. Derrickson then went onto was the widely disliked remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), which I thought was better than most were prepared to give it. Derrickson had earlier made the reasonable Hellraiser Inferno (2000) and outside of that has written Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) and Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty (2004), as well as produced the Christian horror film The Visitation (2006) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), as well as wrote/produced Devil’s Knot (2013) based on the West Memphis Three. I have seen his name turn up on the various Worst Directors/People Who Should Quit the Business lists that populate the IMDB. I wouldn’t go that far – in my book, Derrickson’s films so far fall evenly on either side of the plus/minus divide. At best, Scott Derrickson remains a still unproven prospect who has yet to demonstrate any distinctive or standout style.
Sinister received some good reviews, although you get the feeling that these come from people who haven’t seen many horror films or have much of a grounding in the genre. As it kicks in, Sinister has a blandness to it – a lack of interest in any texture or depth to the characters. Ethan Hawke almost always brings a film to life but here seems lumbered with an underwritten part and does the best he can. In terms of plot description and scenario, everything quickly fades into a blandness. Three months earlier, I saw The Apparition (2012) and The Possession (2012), two would-be horror films that were so utterly boring and generic that they blur together to the point that I now struggle to remember what detail belonged to which film. I suspect in three months time I will be saying the same thing about Sinister.
Where Sinister has it over both The Apparition and The Possession is that Scott Derrickson actually sets out to scare an audience. In fact, the film sometimes overburdens from the effort of his determination to do so – a sleepwalking Michael Hall D’Addario doing improbable things like hiding inside a box so that Derrickson can serve up the freakish image of him emerging out of it backwards – but you cannot deny that he does produce the goods on a number of occasions. There is nothing particularly sophisticated about any of Derrickson’s scares but when you look at the abovementioned competition, a horror fan has to take it where they can get it.
Derrickson manages to get some mora-than-effective jumps in – the spooky scene where Mr Boogie’s face initially suddenly turns inside a photo on Ethan Hawke’s computer screen in the background; the appearance of the children backlit on the lawn while Ethan Hawke is distracted by a dog; Hawke saying goodnight to daughter Clare Foley unaware that she is cowering in fear at a ghost child hunkered down on the other side of the bed. Derrickson gets off one particularly good jump where a ghostly child face appears silently behind Ethan Hawke’s shoulder while he searches the house – although the effect is subsequently watered down by the rest of the scene where Derrickson has pop-up children moving in slow-motion behind Hawke wherever he goes. The film also catches your attention with the opening shot – a piece of mocked-up Super 8 footage where we see a family strung up from a tree with nooses around their necks and a saw set up so that it cuts through the branch and hangs all of them.
On the other side of the coin, Sinister gets a fail mark when it comes to explanatory rationale. The film sets up a big mystery about the families in the houses being slaughtered every few years. This is the central mystery that Ethan Hawke supposedly investigates but interest in solving this soon peters out. You are not sure for a long time if you are watching a film about the mundane activities of a killer or a haunted house story as the film seems to wander off into being – even then it is not clear who the ghost children are meant to be and how they are tied to the family killings. Even vaguer is the explanation that ties everything to the Babylonian deity Buughul who has been outfitted with a peculiarly improbable quirk of following and slaughtering families as they move from house to house every decade, something that seems there more at the scriptwriters whim than for a reason that would make any sense.
Scott Derrickson next went onto make Deliver Us From Evil (2014) based on the supposedly true-life account of a New York detective encountering demonic forces followed by the adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange (2016) and the horror film The Black Phone (2021), also for Blumhouse.
Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company have produced a number of other genre films including:- Hamlet (2000), Paranormal Activity (2007) and sequels, Insidious (2010) and sequels, Tooth Fairy (2010), The Bay (2012), The Lords of Salem (2012), The River (tv series, 2012), Dark Skies (2013), Oculus (2013), The Purge (2013) and sequels, the tv mini-series Ascension (2014), Creep (2014), Jessabelle (2014), Mercy (2014), Mockingbird (2014), Not Safe for Work (2014), Ouija (2014) and sequel, 13 Sins (2014), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), Unfriended/Cybernatural (2014), Area 51 (2015), The Boy Next Door (2015), Curve (2015), The Gallows (2015), The Gift (2015), Jem and the Holograms (2015), The Lazarus Effect (2015), Martyrs (2015), Visions (2015), The Visit (2015), The Darkness (2016), Hush (2016), Incarnate (2016), The Veil (2016), Viral (2016), Amityville: The Awakening (2017), Get Out (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), The Keeping Hours (2017), Split (2017), Stephanie (2017), Bloodline (2018), Cam (2018), Delirium (2018), Halloween (2018), Seven in Heaven (2018), Truth or Dare (2018), Upgrade (2018), Black Christmas (2019), Ma (2019), Prey (2019), Don’t Let Go (2019), Sweetheart (2019), Black Box (2020), The Craft: Legacy (2020), Evil Eye (2020), Fantasy Island (2020), Freaky (2020), The Hunt (2020), The Invisible Man (2020), Nocturne (2020), You Should Have Left (2020), Black as Night (2021), The Black Phone (2021), Dashcam (2021), Madres (2021) and Firestarter (2022).