The first time I saw Scott Derrickson’s, Sinister, I was on my first date. We did a horror movie double feature which was a great idea all around, it just would have been better if it wasn’t a date. Before I get too far down that rabbit hole, we’re here to talk about this movie. If I remember correctly, the other movie was Paranormal Activity 4, which was straight-up awful, but Sinister was something else entirely. I had seen a few other horror movies in theaters before, but none of them had scared me quite as much as this did.
From the opening image of four people standing beneath a tree, cloth bags over their head, and nooses around their neck, I was unnerved. The snuff films are easily Sinister‘s most unique aspect and its most effective tactic at instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are terrifying, but the film wouldn’t be nearly as unsettling without them or even half as memorable.
If you’ve never seen the film before, Sinister (written and directed by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill) follows a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) as he moves to a new house to work on his latest novel. Shortly after moving in, he discovers a box of super 8 home movies which turn out to be films of murders over the last forty years with several striking similarities between them. Is it the work of a serial killer or something more…sinister?
Sinister is one of those films that’s really incredible the first time you watch it. You’re not expecting the scares, the mystery is still unsolved, and you’re not waiting for any particular scenes to happen. The second time though it starts to lose its charm. It’s not as scary anymore. You notice the weaknesses in the story. You have to wonder why you were even scared in the first place.
This is my third or fourth time watching this movie and while I can spot its imperfections and admit it’s by no means a perfect film, I still count it amongst my top five favorite horror films due to its unique presentation with the snuff films as I mentioned earlier, this one incredible sequence that I will never forget, and the meta nature of the film.
Did you ever hear when you were a kid that what you put into your mind was what came out of it? That the things you surround yourself with are going to affect your every day life? Well, you hear it a lot when you’re inundated with horror films or novels or other spooky stuff on a daily basis. You have experiences you can’t quite explain, nightmares galore, and sometimes paranoia and dread. Just ask Scott Derrickson who also gave us the classic, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
I was able to attend a screening of Sinister where Scott agreed to do a Q&A after and he shed a little more light on the film on a thematic level and I’d say this took my appreciation of the film to a whole other level because it was something I could finally relate to. Sinister isn’t just a ghost story, it’s also about Scott Derrickson’s own struggles with the dark material he heavily researches for his films. It’s not a coincidence that Ethan Hawke looks suspiciously like Scott….
As a writer, I totally get where Scott is coming from when he was working on this film. When you get in too deep, it can get pretty scary and out of hand, which is exactly what happens to Hawke’s character in the film. Everywhere Hawke’s character goes, darkness is following him and he can’t keep his family safe from it. This kind of thing just unrelentingly permeates his life. His kids are subject to ridicule or bullying because of who their dad is and the work that he does. It’s this layer or the movie that continues to draw me in and deepen my love for it every time I watch it. It’s such an intriguing story.
Overall, Sinister delivers on the creep factor. It’s got a few good jump scares, but mostly relies on creating an unsettling atmosphere and building its tension to the finale sequence. It’s well worth a watch or two, especially if you’ve never seen it or if you’re curious about this almost autobiographical secondary layer.