Writer-director Scott Derrickson is gaining a reputation as one of the American horror cinema’s most promising tinkerers, apparently motivated to seek out eye-catching new frameworks for long-troubling campfire stories. Derrickson’s 2005 hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose was an odd, not wholly successful attempt to pass an alleged tale of demonic possession through the Law & Order procedural cookiecutter. With belated follow-up Sinister, the filmmaker has taken the pith of those now tired-seeming found-footage movies (think Blair Witch, Cloverfield et al.) and crafted something gripping and involving around it.
Vaguely desperate true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) – ten years from his last commercial success, haunted by a book that let a killer go free, prone to drinking: a man ripe for an unravelling, in other words – has moved with his family to pen his latest opus in a neighbourhood where a family was murdered, and a young child went missing, only a short while before. Oswalt’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) has her reservations, wondering “We didn’t move in a few houses down from a crime scene again, did we?” He assures her no, that’s not the case; he’s right, but in all the wrong ways.
Nobody’s nerves are calmed when a box containing dusty reels of Super-8 film is discovered in the attic: given deceptively jovial labels (“Pool Party”, “B-B-Q” etc.), these canisters feature Kodachromed family memories juxtaposed with footage of vile torture-murders. Immediately, protagonist and viewer are united as one: we’re both left sitting fearfully in the dark, parsing a handful of flickering images for clues. It turns out these films-within-the-film aren’t the unresolved odds-and-ends common to found-footage horror, but a grisly complete legacy, with its own narrative arc and a final (not unguessable) revelation.
That half of the film that doesn’t play out on the walls of Ellison Oswalt’s private screening room is left to unreel on the leading man’s face, and Hawke gives as committed a performance within this kind of role as Johnny Depp in Secret Window or John Cusack in 1408. Even the fitful Emily Rose coaxed interesting moments from the likes of Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Campbell Scott, and again you see how unusually attuned Derrickson is to actors from the time and space he affords Hawke and Rylance to work through the marital meltdown that follows when Tracy finds out why, in the current sluggish marketplace, this house was such a snip.
Around these characters, sonic whizzes Marc Aramian and Dane A. Davis and composer Christopher Young concoct an abstract, unsettling soundscape, in which even the once-reassuring whirr of the projector comes to hint that something’s not right. Not surprisingly so, given those Super-8 films Derrickson has left us with: these genuinely creepy artefacts are shot and cut in such a way as to make the flesh crawl on an impressively regular basis. Sinister is nothing to change the medium, certainly, but it’s a brisk, effective lesson in the manipulation of the image – and of the audience compelled to keep watching it.
Sinister opens nationwide today.