Sinister terrifies with genuine horror

“Classic” is a strong word. It means that a piece of art can last forever, that it can stand on its own and be remembered and revered long after its release. As such, the term “classic”  should be reserved for those special pictures that truly live up to the meaning.

But when trying to describe Summit Entertainment’s Sinister, even the word “classic” does not seem strong enough. Directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and produced by Jason Blum (the Paranormal Activity franchise), this thriller, starring Ethan Hawke, might not only be the scariest film of the decade, but could very well be the best horror flick of all time. It is simply that good.

Reel horror · In Sinister, Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison, a writer bent on chronicling the mysterious history of a house in rural Pennsylvania. – Photo by Phil Caruso, courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Sinister’s methodical character development separates the film from other entries in the genre. The beginning of the film devotes itself entirely to this aspect — nothing evil or exciting takes place for a significant period of time. This allows viewers to get to know Hawke’s character and his family.

Hawke plays a true crime novelist named Ellison, who moves into a rural Pennsylvania house with his wife, son and younger daughter. He has not had a successful novel in years and he desperately seeks the fame he enjoyed in the early days of his career. This desperation has led him to purchase the new house without telling his wife or children why it was such a bargain: Because of its treacherous history, in which a family was hanged in the backyard while the youngest daughter went missing, never to be found again.

Ellison decides to use this haunting story as source material for his new book, but the movie takes a turn for the worse when Ellison discovers a box of Super 8 film reels in the attic of the new house, which show not just the apparent supernatural hanging of the previous owners but also the murders of more families dating back several decades.

What then follows is a film so delicately timed and calculated that it achieves absolute horror perfection. Derrickson knows how to build up dread, sustain an aura of mystery and masterfully allow Ellison’s world to come crashing down before viewers’ eyes.

The techniques that appear in Sinister are not new, but because the film executes them so well, they appear groundbreaking. As Ellison stumbles around the house late at night investigating strange noises, the suspense becomes almost unbearable. Sinister harbors the kind of toe-curling dread that makes viewers dig their fingernails into the armrests and plead for something to happen just to get it over with.

And an event, almost always, occurs in those scenes, one so bone chilling that it can silence an entire theater stuffed to capacity. These moments are made even more intense just by the simple fact that viewers become so invested in the characters.

Ethan Hawke, in his first horror film, delivers a knockout performance, allowing the audience to experience his character’s desperation for fame and the struggle between balancing that desire with the goal of providing for his family. Viewers are let into an intimate window that shows a crumbling marriage and a wife, played tremendously by Juliet Rylance, who is at her breaking point.

Hawke and Rylance’s theater backgrounds allow them to captivate audiences, especially during their argumentative scenes, which are filmed almost exclusively as one single shot. Sinister does not make use of multiple angles or cameras; instead, the two acting powerhouses hold the audience’s attention with pure skill.

The secondary characters are just as enjoyable, with Law and Order’s Vincent D’Onofrio making a cameo as a professor who helps Ellison understand the pagan god causing all the destruction depicted in the Super 8 footage.

Perhaps the most memorable character, however, is a star-struck deputy, played by James Ransone, who tries to impress Ellison throughout the whole film. The script, mostly by way of this character, ends up providing several unexpectedly laugh-out-loud scenes that make for a nice break from the scary moments.

But those breaks are few and far between once the action revs up. Sinister runs like a diesel engine: The film has a slow beginning serving as a warm up that leads into the final horrifying acts that follow.

This is no teenage horror picture with cheap scares; this mature piece intends to terrify audiences right to their very cores. Sinister does not get its R-rating because of profanity, sex or gore. Instead, the film gets it from “disturbing violent images and some terror,” according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Some terror” is an understatement. Sinister packs its runtime with the exact things that nightmares are made of: helplessness, confusion, violence, otherworldly forces and, of course, children at the center of it all. Derrickson’s shots convey this perfectly, and are contrasted nicely with the hair-raising Super 8 footage that adds in another layer of undeniable creepiness.

If 2007’s Paranormal Activity made low-budget horror films mainstream and 2010’s Insidious made old school horror seem alive and well, Sinister is the bastard love child of the two. By combining the best elements from these films, the entire team behind Sinister has created the crowning achievement of the horror genre.

Calling the film a “classic” just doesn’t cut it.

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