Horror at SXSW: 'Sinister' and its Hair-Raising Descent Into Terror

Horror at SXSW: 'Sinister' and its Hair-Raising Descent Into Terror

Mar 11, 2012

This is the part where I’m supposed to admit that I know screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (aka movie critic Massawyrm from Ain't It Cool News). I’m supposed to lay this bare in the interest of journalistic integrity, and admit that not only have we met, but that we’re actually friends. I have to say this first because if I don’t some reader will come back and say that my relationship with Cargill might’ve influenced how I felt about his debut feature film Sinister (under the directing hand of Scott Derrickson). So, here it is: Cargill is my friend.

Truth is, it would be next to impossible to be part of the Austin, Texas film community and not know Cargill. There are only so many bloggers and only so many film festivals, and if I had to blind myself from all contact with creative types in the hopes of keeping my professionalism untainted, well, I would have a pretty dull social life. So, my integrity is not based on who I know, but who I am. I have to be honest with myself as a person, and hope that it that carries over into my writing.

Now, imagine if your friend told you a really cool story, one that you wanted to share with other people. There’s no bias in that; it’s the story itself that you want to pass along, not the fact that your friend told you the story. So, it shouldn’t matter who made Sinister when I tell you that Sinister is a story worth seeing.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a family man and true crime writer coasting on the success of a past novel in the hopes that a move into a new home will inspire his best work in years. The home is the place where four family members were found hanged from a tree in their backyard while a fifth family member, a young girl, mysteriously vanished. Ellison hopes that his work will uncover clues that will reveal the fate of the missing daughter, but those hopes are sidelined when he finds a mysterious box of home movies in the house’s attic, featuring several decades worth of ritualistic killings.

What happens next is a hair-raising descent into terror that evokes the spirit of horror classics like Changeling or The Amityville Horror. Even with its jump scares and standard supernatural tropes, Derrickson taps a vein with Sinister that feels both adult and strange, a tone of utter doom missing from recent similar films like Insidious. The movie doesn’t re-invent the wheel in its desire to scare you, but it often zigs when you expect it to zag. There are no violent histrionics here, no appeals to the teenybopper horror crowd, and no tidy solutions where spirits are put to rest and everyone goes home happy. Sinister is relentlessly dark and as solemn as a tomb.

There’s a slight meta-textual thing going on as well. Ellison is like the audience, compelled to keep watching these films that get under his skin with images he can’t unsee. It’s the conundrum of the intelligent, compassionate adult horror fan -- can I watch these images unscathed? Am I inviting this darkness into my thoughts, and thus, into my home and family? Sinister doesn’t intend to answer these questions, but the mere fact that they exist within the film give it an edge of maturity that’s unexpected.

The film is carried on the back of Derrickson’s sure-handed direction, Ethan Hawke’s convincing, realistic performance, and Christopher Young’s bizarre electronic score. While my friend Cargill may have written it, this thing wasn’t created in a vacuum. Screenplays can often become a completely different movie than what’s laid down on the page once they reach production. Cargill should be very pleased that, in his first time out, he’s found a group of collaborators who were able to bring his gloomy story to life in the absolute creepiest of ways.

Now I can go back to him, look him square in the eye, and say, “yes, I liked your movie” instead of avoiding the subject at parties for years to come. Awkward. Seriously, I don’t gain anything by telling you that Sinister is the real deal, just like I wouldn’t lose my friendship with Cargill if I was forced to tell him, “eh, it really wasn’t my thing.” Truth be told -- Sinister is exactly my kind of thing, and I’m quite pleased (and relieved) to let everyone know that it is.

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