Sinister opens with a scene which is so quietly unsettling that 'sinister', as a descriptor, seems superficial at best. Shot silently in grainy home video footage, yet inheriting seldom of the lame and commonly ineffective faux-shock tactics of so many modern horror films using similar stylistic designs, this particular scene sets the tone for the forthcoming hour and forty five minutes or thereabouts, and there can be few films which so explicitly and effectively state their murky intentions within such a short amount of running time. If you hate the first five minutes of Scott Derrickson's supernatural horror picture, then you had better switch off at this early juncture, because the tension and often obscene suggestions of horror and murder barely let up for the remainder of the film, and regardless of what shortcomings you may find in terms of some of the depicted dynamics between the characters, or the implausibilities of the supernatural storyline, it's difficult to deny the sheer power and skin-crawling intensity of this grim and gruesome yarn.
At its cinematic release, many viewers noted the stylistic similarities between this film and James Wan's successful 2010 chiller, Insidious, and the similarities are certainly compelling. This perhaps shouldn't be an enormous surprise, since the film shares some of the same production team, and in terms of the intensity, the moody atmospherics of the house, and the portrayal of families and children wrapped up in the supernatural fabric of a property, these two productions feel like they share the same dark beating heart. Indeed, at times, one experiences a sense of deja vu, as some almost interchangeable backdrops - such as the expansive yet shadowy attics - provide highly effective and stylistically similar canvasses for these portraits to be built upon.
During the best part of its running time - roughly the first half of the film - Insidious is one of the most tense and frightening mainstream horror films of the past few years. Sinister confidently joins the earlier film in displaying the same frightening credentials, yet manages to exceed the quality of its predecessor through a more restrained hand and a less ambitious visual scope; Insidious allowed its own over-ambitious vision of hell to burst the considerable bubble of tension amassed during an insanely tense opening hour, yet Sinister carries out its commitment to rattling your subconscious with grim determination throughout, and it's only some small submissions to an overambitious hand later in the film which represent any easing of the coiled-spring tension of this impressive production.
Technically, the delivery of this film is extremely strong, and this is all the more surprising bearing in mind that the film was made for the relatively modest budget (by modern standards, at least) of three million dollars; one wonders how much of this remained after Hawke's fee. Chris Norr's cinematography is excellent throughout, and the camera moves with confidence and precision to capture the grimly unfolding story in impressive fashion. Attention is afforded to all scenes; for instance, the early scene where Hawke is pictured unloading belongings from the removal lorry is executed with controlled creativity, panning around to follow the characters as they are introduced into the story.
Whilst there are some extremely disturbing characters in Sinister, the house itself is responsible for some of the most disturbing elements of this unsettling picture. With its dark blue walls and expansive rooms, the opportunity to cast corners into shadow is ripe, and the lighting is arranged expertly to realise this opportunity to its fullest extent. In fact, at some stages, it's almost impossible to see what's going on at all, but largely the moody lighting is excellent, and this judicial use of light creates a palpable, almost unbearable tension.
Yet where the house plays a fundamentally vital role in squeezing an atmosphere of uncomfortable tension for this grim yarn, the value of the other players does vary somewhat. Ethan Hawke is generally solid as the real crime author of slightly dubious morals, presenting the refreshingly flawed character of Ellison Oswalt - a man who desperately tries to balance his often conflicting roles of husband and father, true crime author, and responsible citizen - with an increasingly tenuous and chaotic grip. There's a distinct lack of chemistry, however, between Oswalt, and his wife Tracy, played by Juliet Rylance. I'm not sure that Rylance is a poor actress per se, but her on-screen relationship with Hawke does not convince, and moments where she is supposedly incandescent with rage feel forced and flat.
The other notable performance - for the right reasons - is that of James Ransone (of The Wire and Treme fame), playing the 'Deputy'. Oswalt appears to enjoy a considerably better rapport with the nervous and modest deputy than with his own wife, but the most important component that Ransone brings to this film is that of humour. It's a subtle brand of humour as opposed to anything laugh-out-loud - a sensible decision for such an intense horror film - yet with such a grim, cruel, unbearably tense, and often depressing film presentation, his quiet and well-delivered humour is a warmly welcomed though short-lived respite.
Scott Derrickson's Sinister opens in grimly shocking fashion, and the tone is almost unremittingly grim and tense until the film's eventual closure. Your suspension of disbelief may be punctuated occasionally by some unconvincing dynamics, and for many viewers this may just be too dark and unrelenting a film to be enjoyable. But if well-crafted, agonisingly tense, and deeply unsettling horror - even that lacking in credibility at times - is your thing, then you'll be darkly delighted by the unpleasant allure of Sinister.
Momentum Home Entertainment release this tidy horror shocker on region 2 DVD. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1, and thanks to a strong transfer, it looks great. Darkness plays a crucial role in this film, and the presentation of blacks is impressive, with the dark shadows being reproduced with a depth which looks true. An early example is the scene where the family are eating dinner in their new home, and the camera shoots from a distance to picture the family at the lit table, entirely surrounded by darkness. The resultant scene is an impressive sight, and this approach is used consistently throughout the film. The rest of the colour spectrum is similarly well represented, and even during more challenging scenes, such as the slow zooms into the bright projector lamp, the colour never feels washed out or artificial.
Subtitles are available in English, and these prove clear, accurate, and well placed.
There are trailers for Seven Psychopaths, The Bay, and House at the End of the Street.
Momentum also release Derrickson's film on Blu-ray.
Audio arrives in the form of English Dolby 5.1 Surround, and the aural accompaniment is of a suitably high standard to compliment the high quality visuals. In any tense horror film of this character, the placement of the audio is vital, and both the quality of the sound and the positioning of the levels is strong, ensuring that the maximum impact is delivered during the carefully crafted shocks. Dialogue is clear and accurate throughout, and Christopher Young's haunting musical score is afforded the reproduction it deserves. With a substantial but controlled bass resonance and a clear and hiss-free treble, it's difficult to pick any real fault with the sound delivery on this release.
There are two commentary tracks provided with this film. Curiously, we get a Commentary with Director Scott Derrickson, which features the director talking about his film in solitary fashion, and then a second, separate slot, a Commentary with Writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, which sees the director joined by the other writer of the film (with Derrickson having collaborated on writing duties with Cargill). It's a bit odd that Derrickson would record a commentary track on his own and then with Cargill, but as it happens, it doesn't matter here, since both commentary tracks prove to be stimulating and rewarding listens. The first commentary with a solo Derrickson is a surprisingly absorbing experience, with the commentator barely pausing for breath despite the lack of a second commentator or questioner. The director demonstrates an enormous amount of passion for the film and for the genre, and lends the viewer a fascinating insight into some of the challenges around the filming, especially regarding working on a very tight budget (in this instance, three million dollars). He also discusses many of the technical elements of the film, and the decisions he made surrounding the location and the method of filming.
The second commentary is similarly stimulating, and Derrickson and Cargill demonstrate a relaxed approach to the discussion, with the co-writers proving comfortable with the company of one another. They run through a number of stories surrounding the film, and there's inevitably some crossover with the commentary which Derrickson delivers alone, but the most absorbing elements of the discussion surround the narrators' explanation of the meanings and motivations behind the film. The inspiration of the film having come from a nightmare one of the writers had about Ring is an intriguing little nugget - the two writers are certainly bona fide horror fans - and it's also good to hear the writers discuss some of their descriptions of the motivations of the characters. For instance, it's compelling to hear the commentators describe Hawke's character and the fears which drive him; whilst he fears the presence which comes to haunt him in the film, his behaviour is also driven by the fear of not being successful, and the fear of not being able to provide for his family. The commentary certainly helps to add an extra dimension to the film here.
Moving on, and the other extras feel rather perfunctory after such enjoyable commentary pieces. A True Crime Authors Feature includes a number of authors discussing the cases they have written about, and the film itself, with particular attention towards the crime writer in the film, Ellison Oswalt, and his chaotic, obsessive quest to make sense of the murders and the bizarre events escalating around him. It's only a short piece (eight minutes), but it's watchable enough. Be aware that some of the real life crime photographs are - perhaps inevitably - somewhat disturbing.
Living in a House of Death Feature is an eleven minute piece focussing mainly on the so called 'Villisca Ax Murder House', the location of an awful set of murders where stupid teenagers now convince each other to spend the night. Watch out for the supposed 'real' supernatural activity towards the end of the piece, which actually takes place during the filming of the featurette.
Fear Experiment is a curious five minute piece which features what looks like a comedy University professor who scientifically 'measures' the 'fear' responses of five participants who watch Sinister at a cinema viewing. It's a rather odd little extra but makes for stimulating enough viewing.
Finally, a highly revealing Trailer which replays what is virtually the final frame of the film is included, and I strongly advise you not to watch it prior to the film itself.
Momentum release Scott Derrickson's unsettling horror with a high quality presentation and a modest handful of extras. In terms of modern horror, Sinister drives the fear factor home with impressive aplomb, without resorting to lengthy and mindless torture sequences or elaborate supernatural set-pieces, and as such, for fans of jumps, shocks, and frights, Derrickson's film comes highly recommended.