With all this underground and low budget horror abominations, it’s been a long, long time since the audience embraced a horror movie and celebrated it’s creepiness. The positive aspect of these piles of direct-to-video failures, if there is anything at all, it offers a way to enjoy, follow and criticize a variety of blood-flicks almost every day by the fanatical horror fan. That again, has the negative side effect of creating products without flare and a real and intriguing, horrific masterpiece comes only occasionally. Do you have the feeling that most of the haunted house horrors begin, progress and end the same way? Well, this one doesn’t. ELLISON OSWALT makes a big mistake in knowingly moving into a house where a brutal massacre happened. Because an accomplished drama actor plays the main character, the whole movie feels more real, darker and more atmospheric. He translates the seriousness of the problem in such a way, so the moviegoer accepts everything the movie offers. Most of the plot is following genre conventions, but it still manages to create something new inside the familiar.
ELLISON (Ethan Hawke) writes TRUE CRIME NOVELS (they’re not fictitious books, because they’re grounded in real facts) by the names of KENTUCKY BLOOD, COLD DINER MORNING, BLOOD DINER. His character represents a homage to the true crime novelist Truman Capote (ELLISON’S idol) and his book IN COLD BLOOD. As a novelist, ELLISON is selfish, eager to get what he wants, but misunderstood. He assumes that his books represent his heritage, but his wife TRACY (Juliet Rylance) tells him, it’s his children. In addition, he says that the purpose of his life is writing books, but his wife wants her and the children to be the meaning of his life. The problem arises, when the audience has only the worst things to say about ELLISON. He moved his family on purpose inside a house where murders occurred, so he can selfishly write his new bestseller. He’s not diligent around his family, but deep inside he is still a positive character.
NINE REASONS THAT ELLISON IS A POSITIVE CHARACTER
1. He really loves his wife and he seeks out his wife’s approval to write his new book. Someone else wouldn’t need the approval of their wife. They would write it anyway, because they don’t really love their wife. ELLISON is not just dependent on his wife; he acts literally like one of her children.
2. Although his work involves true crime evidence, he manically calls the police after seeing the first footage of the murder, because he is aware it’s wrong to have this kind of evidence. So, in the end, why didn’t he hand over the film roles? The sheriff warned him not to be cocky, because in his earlier book he found evidence that the police didn’t, but he also had a bad theory that helped the killer to be free and that placed him in a position of hatred and 24-hour surveillance by the police. He doesn’t need more problems than he already has. He thinks it not wise to involve the police, because it could cause a scandal and then his family would suffer.
3. He has a son who has disturbing nightmares, night terrors they call it, and he sleepwalks at night. After an ‘incident’ ELLISON takes really good care of his son, because he loves him.
4. While watching the snuff tapes, he does care. He is nervous and feels nausea. He drinks, because otherwise he couldn’t handle that amount of violence and injustice displayed on the tapes. Many horror films exist where main characters adore the serial killers they’re investigating, they don’t mind the blood, and killing, they even celebrate it. In this movie, the audience can witness that the main character can’t handle the subject he’s working on. Which means, he’s not that selfish about writing books. He only does it, because they offer him the quick bucks. He wants to provide for his family. If he had a teaching position at the university or if he wrote textbooks, he couldn’t earn the freedom and money that he’s enjoying now.
5. When he isn’t writing his novels at night, he constantly watches his taped interviews of his younger self on VHS. In one of the interviews, they ask him what feels better, fame or justice. He answers justice and he doesn’t lie. He began his work as an idealist, by investigating murders he wants to solve crimes, but he has to disobey rules to get to the bottom of it. He undertakes everything that is necessary to crack the case. Why would someone use that against him? It’s the same as asking superheroes to play by the rules, and if they disobeyed: jailtilme!
6. Every night he perceives a funny noise from the halls of his new house. In addition, every time he goes out to look where it comes from, so he can protect his family. Of course, he doesn’t rescue his family by abandoning the house, but it’s the thought that counts.
7. He talks to the deputy about losing his mind. That needs a lot of guts to accomplish and he has to set his ego aside. He embarrasses himself in front of a stranger, because he desperately needs an advice. A proud person with a big ego would never do this.
8. Although no one is threatening him, he is scared. The monster is reason enough to go nuts, but here ELLISON is discovering his limit. He is not as brave as he thought. Every night he goes down the stairs to protect his family, but ends up pissing himself in the corner. At least, he tries.
9. He moved back into his old house to outrun the problem. He gave up on writing the book when he gazed into the abyss and he wants to start over. However, the problems keep coming back.
‘If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back at you.’
The introduction sequence to this movie is a masterpiece. In the beginning, the blackness is long enough to heighten the expectations, but when the picture appears, everything goes riot. The audience bear witness to a snuff tape… at the beginning of the movie! It is a great way to catapult the moviegoers to a ride of no return. That image will be engraved in their minds forever. It is fantastic, ’cause it reminds of the footage from 8mm (Joel Schumacher, 1999. with Nicolas Cage). In that movie, the footage was never shown to the audience that was very eager to have a peak. Here is the footage presented at the begging of the movie and everybody who wanted to see such horror feels sorry afterwards, because it’s not easy to forget such imagery.
The demon BUGHUUL (who eats the souls of children) isn’t that scary, but he isn’t suppose to be. He is interesting, easy to remember and he does his job well as a demon, but the true horror atmosphere comes from Ethan Hawke. Precisely because ELLISON passes through various levels of fear, the audience can relate to him and to his emotions. Viewers are by no means to empathize with ELLISON’S decisions, which aren’t that important, but they cling on to his emotions. Because ELLISON is shitting his pants, the audience is shitting their pants, too.
The demon sends signals to the ones that are inside his curse. Professor JONAS (Vincent D’Onofrio) tells ELLISON, during their skype meeting, to look out for a scorpion, a snake and a dog.
The scorpion showed up the first day the family arrived into the new house, which is the signal for: It has begun. After that, ELLISON finds the tapes. Which means, it wasn’t necessary for ELLISON to find the tapes, he was already marked. And that tells us, that the family is doomed to die. It’s a pity the professor didn’t have any suggestion or insight how to get rid of the curse. Most horrors have that kind of myths. That info would lead ELLISON to fight for his family and he wouldn’t just run away from the problems. There is the weakness of his character. If a problem arises, he doesn’t want to deal with it and runs away.
The reappearing shots involve handling the projector to show the snuff tapes. The names of the tapes are ironic. B.B.Q. shows a family being grilled in a car and FAMILY HANGING OUT show a family hanging from a tree. It’s humour is present where the audience at least expects it. Every time ELLISON prepares the tapes, at least ten shots are showing how he switches the projector on, puts the reel in and clicks all the buttons. The cinematographer uses candid angles to give the projector more meaning and depth.
That kind of framing, brings out the need to get a projector ourselves! Sadly, its era is gone, but this is a homage to the old and solid product that evoke happiness and a special experience throughout the world. Just like old horror films. This movie is making a statement that this era is not over, it can be brought back, and this movie is the first step.
One murder is documented in different ways:
- ELLISON’S daughter made a painting on the wall
- The projected image from the tape
- The handycam tapes the projected image on the wall
- Recording on the pc
- ELLSION’S notes which describe that event
The director wanted to convey the message that it doesn’t matter with what technique you capture a murder, it’ll always be a piece of art.
DID THE KIDS SEE THE TAPES?
Two scenes are confirming that they did, because there is no other way they could have that knowledge. Firstly, the boy was suspended from school, because he drawn a disturbing painting. When ELLISON asks TRACY what the drawing is about, she tells him it’s about four hanged people.
In addition, the daughter caught something from the tapes, because she drawn the girl from the tape on the wall. The only thing that remains unexplained is ELLISON’S reaction. He didn’t say anything, although it is the ultimate proof that the kids were in his working room and that they saw the tapes.
INTERESTING WAYS THE MURDERS HAPPENED
1. Hanging – Air
2. Burning alive – fire
3. Drowning – Water
4. Lawnmower – Earth
TWO PROMISES ELLISON KEPT
1. He says to his wife
‘There is no next book..’
He didn’t write the book. In fact, he didn’t even begin to write the book.
2. He tells his daughter that they will move back into the old house. By the end of the movie they moved back.
The director SCOTT DERICSSON (The exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005.) was very focused to capture the atmosphere from the 60’s-70’s, when great horror movies came to the surface, like Rosemary’s baby (1968.) and Amityville Horror (1979.).
DEPUTY: ‘That would put the killer what, in the seventies?’
ELLISON: ‘Yeah, or the sixties.’
That was the time when horror films frightened audiences, not entertained them. The biggest influence Sinister offers is THE SHINING (Stanley Kubrick, 1980.).
1. A writer moves into an isolated space to write his new bestseller.
2. During his creative phase he drinks a lot to endure the hard time.
3. He takes a baseball bat to defend himself.
4. His kid draws pictures on the wall.
5. The main weapon of destruction is an axe.
6. The writer dies.
Although these references are directly lifted from The Shining, it is made in such a creative and serious manner that is not overplayed.
BUGHUUL – the ancient demon’s name is a combination of BUG (the curse from the scorpion and the snake) and GHOUL (like a ghost that can appear everywhere). One of these appearances is a homage to BLOW UP (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.).
A small reference is from THE EXORCIST (William Friedkin, 1973.).
And one is from Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982.) The dynamics in the families are the same. During the time when the parents have to figure out what the problem in the house is, the child is already under the influence of the spirit/demon. The parents fight until the child unleashes the chaos.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SINISTER AND OTHER HAUNTED HOUSE HORROR FILMS
- The characters usually don’t know that murders happened in their house or that it’s constructed above an Indian cemetery. They need the whole movie to realize that piece of information. Here, ELLISON already knows.
- If the movie contains a legend or myth, there is always a recipe present how to stop the evil forces. No one mentions a way out in this one, they don’t even come up with a plan, they just run away.
- The opening sequence is not in the lives of the characters, it’s presented only for the audience. The 4th wall is overthrown and the audience is at alert. That is a smart move to keep the audiences tension. Although the movie contains a few cheap scares, they feel more intense now, because the opening scene crawled deep under the skin.
- Usually the building the family moves in is scary on its own. In this movie, the house is very mundane and boring. Therefore, the scare factor is passed on to Ethan Hawke. His task is to make the house scary.
THE PROMO POSTER
It doesn’t happen often, that a movie poster explains the whole film.
- The daughter is responsible for the deaths in the house. On the poster, she turns her back to the spectator, because she is guilty.
- The tapes on the floor suggest, that she saw them and that they play a role in the massacre.
- She draws various pictures during the movie. After she kills the family, the tape gets the name PAINTING ’12. The tape on the poster could as well be that particular tape.
- The demon in the poster is painted on the wall. It is a picture of him. That is the trick how he gets inside the family: through a picture. Just as ELLISON noticed him in the picture, the audience should notice him in the poster; because that is the way he gets into everybody’s lives.
- Tagline: ONCE YOU SEE HIM, NOTHING CAN SAVE YOU. Ain’t that the truth? Once ELLSION saw him, it was over for his family.
This movie takes itself seriously for a change and despite some flaws, it manages to create the thrilling and spooky realm horror fans longed for. Who or what is sinister? It is the way, that is sinister, how the family didn’t even have a chance to defend themselves. Because ELLISON wants to repeat his success from the past, he is willing to go through corpses to get there (metaphorically: the tapes) or to sell his and his family to the devil (or demon in this case), if he has to. This story is about selling his soul to gain success. His greediness killed his family. When the movie ends, there is a weird feeling in the spectator left behind, like something isn’t quite right or something is missing. What’s missing is a threat. ELLISON didn’t stop the threat from killing him and his family, and that threat will lurk inside the house waiting for the next family to arrive. It’s an uneasy feeling, ’cause everybody could be next.
ELLISON: ‘Tracy, nobody died here! It’s not like we’re sleeping where somebody
was killed or they had to wipe blood of the walls for the open house!’
TRACY: ‘So you’re saying it didn’t happen here?’
ELLISON: ‘No!…uh, it happen in the backyard..