Of the Sam Raimi-produced exorcism flick The Possession, I wrote:
Characters. Characters matter. Especially in ‘scary’ movies—after all, how can I experience true fear if I don’t care about the people on the big screen? […] Fortunately, Ole Bornedal, director of The Possession, understands the importance of good characters. After a brief opening shock, he introduces us to a family we instantly recognize—perhaps as our own, or as our friend’s, or as our neighbor’s[…] Bornedal introduces conflict—believable, meaningful conflict—even before the supernatural artifact enters the picture, making the ensuing horror more engaging, more satisfying, more real.
The same could be said of Sinister. After an early stumble with Chernobyl Diaries, 2012 has turned out to be a pretty decent year for horror fans.
At the heart of Sinister’s chilling story lies another domestic drama, though the family here is far less splintered than the one in The Possession–the wife occasionally threatens divorce, but only out of a desire to shelter her children from her husband’s macabre work. Said husband is a true crime writer, desperate for another big hit after a string of devastating failures–desperate enough to live in a house that was recently the site of a grisly murder (apparently, he subscribes to Werner Herzog’s theory of the “voodoo of location”).
A ghost story about smart people doing sensible things would be very short indeed, and so at every turn, it is the husband’s blind ambition that pushes the dark, twisted tale forward. When he discovers grainy Super 8 recordings of seemingly-ritualistic killings (some dating back to the '60s) tucked away in a box in his attic–and reasons that they could only have been left there after the local authorities concluded their investigation–he considers informing the police, but ultimately decides that he must solve the case himself. His insatiable hunger for fame, success, and financial stability clouds his judgment; by the time his son’s recurring night terrors grow more violent and his daughter’s paintings grow more disturbing, escape may very well be impossible.
The protagonist’s selfishness alone would make for a frightening enough picture, but it’s the haunting, voyeuristic “home movie” footage that really crawls under the viewer’s skin. Although director Scott Derrickson does indulge in a few jump scares, both he and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, like Carpenter before them, realize that there exists a more potent flavor of terror: the fear of being watched by some silent, unseen observer.
And few experiences are more unnerving than seeing the world through that observer’s eyes.
[Originally written October 13, 2012.]