Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: A horror movie that gets it right

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If you enjoy good horror films, you should check out Sinister, writes Dominic Corry.

Ethan Hawke in 'Sinister'. Photo /  Summit Entertainment
Ethan Hawke in 'Sinister'. Photo / Summit Entertainment

If you enjoy good horror films, you generally have to trawl through about a dozen or so bad ones before finding something half-way decent.

Then every now and then, you come across a film like Sinister, which justifies sifting through all the dreck.

Sinister has just been released on DVD and blu ray in this country. I shouldn't be surprised that it bypassed cinemas here - horror movies rarely get the chance to play on the big screen in New Zealand - but it is perhaps slightly more perplexing than usual because the film proved to be something of a sleeper hit in its American release.

Anyway, I watched this at home alone on Sunday night with the lights off and it scared the bejesus out of me. It was a very good time.

Sinister stars Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer whose most recent success is now a decade behind him. In a last ditch effort to revive his flagging career, he moves his wife and two young kids into a house where the previous residents were brutally murdered (by hanging!) some years before.

He wants to write a book about what happened there, but neglects to inform his wife of the home's grisly history. On the first night in the house, he discovers a box in the attic containing some old Super 8 movies and a projector.

Naturally curious, he sets up the projector and plays one of the films - he is shocked to discover it is footage of the house's previous family being hanged. Viewings of the increasingly nasty other film reels suggest the murders were the work of a serial killer, and Oswalt thinks he's on to the story of his life.

I want to say more, but I'd rather preserve your viewing experience of the film.

I love scary movies about writers. There's something about the inherent desperation of a writer that makes it seem more plausible when they do foolish things in the name of plot development. You can see the fervour in Oswalt's eyes as he is simultaneously repulsed and excited by the insane footage he is watching.

Sinister exploits the aesthetic creepiness of Super 8 film stock spectacularly - the movie opens with the aforementioned hanging footage, which sets a dark tone that the film sustains nicely. Every time Oswalt sits down to watch another reel, the anticipation is squeezed even tighter. I was squirming in my seat throughout this.

The film's co-writer C Robert Cargill said he was inspired to write the screenplay by a nightmare he experienced following a viewing of The Ring - a surprising admission considering how much Sinister borrows from the earlier film. But it's not a rip-off.

Lots of films have attempted to build on The Ring's ability to squeeze terror out of weird-looking short films seen by its characters, but Sinister is the first one to really achieve it. With celluloid film projection all but dead, the medium has a heightened uneasiness that suits Sinister perfectly.

The film's director and co-writer is Scott Derrickson, who made his debut with a DTV Hellraiser sequel, but came to prominence with the well-regarded 2005 'true life' horror The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

He followed that up with 2008's sterile big-budget remake of sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Sinister represents a return to both the more economical storytelling of Emily Rose, and it has me suddenly very interested in Derrickson as a filmmaker.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose demonstrated an ability on Derrickson's part to liven up familiar horror tropes, and that talent is very much at work in Sinister - there's nothing particularly ground-breaking about its content or story, but it plays out skilfully with artistic aplomb and a knack for the nightmarish. I cannot remember the last time I actually covered my ears watching a horror film.

Sinister is everything I wanted recent release The Conjuring (which did get a New Zealand theatrical run) to be. That well-received horror also traded in familiar domestic horrortropes, but I found it to be terminally flat, despite almost universally positive reviews and a successful box office run.

I've struggled to connect with other recent mainstream horror successes, like Insidious, the sequel to which just came out to great success in America. I guess it proves that like comedy, horror is a very subjective genre.

But I'm struggling to picture a horror fan not enjoying Sinister - so be sure to check it out if you are one. Just make sure to steel yourself - this is a very dark film.

* Seen Sinister? Like? What other recent horrors are worth a watch do you think? Comment Below!

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