I rarely go see horror films theatrically because, mostly, today’s horror genre just hasn’t been my style. The few times I go, it’s usually a general letdown. However, the trailers for Sinister were effectively suspenseful and scary to where I had to work up some courage to see it. And now, after having seen it, yeah, I wasn’t courageous enough for it. This is a damn good horror movie, one of the scariest I’ve ever seen.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime novelist who has moved his family into the house where a grisly family murder once took place. He hides this fact from his wife and two children, but the locals know the home’s history, especially law enforcement. The town’s Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) even attempts to convince Ellison to pack his things up and leave right away, but he is not deterred as writing this book maybe the one big paycheck he needs to get his family back on their feet, again. When Ellison discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies depicting a series of family murders dating back to the 1960s, he believes they are all connected to the one he intends to write about. However, what he doesn’t realize is that he has just plunged his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror. The evil that claimed the lives of these families is now threatening them.
I just have to start out with the fact that this film choked me up with tension and suspense so much, my heart was damn near pounding out my chest. Even as the end credits rolled, I needed a few minutes to calm back down before standing up and leaving. Sinister delivers on scary. Usually, I view the word “scary” as a lightweight term, but here, I want to give it a full heavyweight treatment. The film has a methodical pace. It sets up the creepy atmosphere from the very first shot, and it sent chills up and down me, as much of the film did. I like that it slowly eases the audience into a supernatural ideal. Ellison is repeatedly skulking through the darkness of his new house at increasingly louder and more overt noises. While it got to being that I just wanted him to flick on a light switch, as most anyone would do in near pitch black chasing weird sounds around the house, the sequences are just hair raising suspense at its finest. These sequences gradually build upon one another until the supernatural element is impossible to deny, and becomes far more intimidating as they occur. The biggest chill probably hits when Ellison is tracking the creeks around the house, and what he can’t see are the ghosts that are stalking him everywhere he goes. Even the few false scares serve a purpose for the characters, and overall, every scare is sharply effective. Sinister scared the hell out of me. No other film has done that since The Strangers.
The story is smartly crafted setting up Ellison Oswalt’s situation hiding the truth of the house from his wife, his own struggles with whether he’s doing this for the financial security of his family, or just to bask in the spotlight, again. There are nice moments where Ellison is watching old TV interviews from when he clearly had a more optimistic and altruistic attitude. His younger self talks about how he writes these books for the sense of justice instead of money, and it shows just how desperate Ellison’s point of view has changed. The decline his career has taken forces him to do something far more deceitful and amoral by moving his family into the house of a murdered family, and hiding that from them. It puts more stress upon him, and eventually, coupled with the strain these snuff films put on him, he begins to drink quite frequently. It pushes the inner turmoil to the surface, and further enhances the outer conflicts of the film. Everyone can see there’s something troubling him beneath the surface, but he’s so hesitant to speak of it for fear that it will ruin his efforts with this book. He might be selfish in that regard, but he’s not without conscience.
As Ellison views these Super 8mm films, we are right there with him feeling the gruesome, unspeakable horror that he is witnessing. He is clearly disturbed by these films, and you can see the recoils and reluctance he has in sitting through them just for the sake of his book. Beyond just seeing them, there’s the knowledge that every frame of film was shot by the murderer. The killer wanted someone to see these as a foretelling omen of what will happen to them, and ultimately, the plot works this into the supernatural elements smartly and perfectly. Ellison’s investigation is very smart as he uncovers more and more clues, revealing more detailed evidence as he digs deeper. The film keeps the mystery alive all the time, and sucks you into it every step of the way. As more is discovered, the more frightening everything becomes, and the danger increases with every passing night for the Oswalts. The addition that their son Trevor has had night terrors for most of his life, and that it is acting up more than ever just builds upon the unsettling nature of the house, and the evil that is haunting and stalking them. Of course, since Ellison is intent on keeping the truth of the house a secret for as long as possible, he refrains from taking more rational action to keep the family safe. I also like that, early on, he has the impulse to call the police after watching the films, but backs away from it thinking about the best seller book he needs to write. If he hands everything over to the cops, his book is inevitably done for, and he shies away from pursuing that course. These actions never made him unlikable in my view as he is trying to do something that will financially put his family at ease, but eventually, he’s gone too far down this ill path for the police to realistically do anything.
Ethan Hawke really is damn good as Ellison Oswalt. He’s in essentially every single scene, and gives a lot of dimension and relatability to the character. Ellison is a caring father to both his kids showing deep concern for their well being, and always thinking about them, most of the time. When it comes to his wife Tracy, portrayed strongly by Juliet Rylance, there is definite conflict. She worries about his well being, fearing that he will become an emotional wreck, and fall down an ill path they’re both familiar with. He tries to reassure her, and keep her away from the disturbing truth. However, when the truth eventually gets out, the confrontational scene between them is immensely realistic. The argument has a few bits of levity as Ellison spouts out pithy excuses for putting them into this situation, but ultimately, it’s a very emotionally visceral scene. Hawke conveys the fear, turmoil, and horror of the character with powerful realism, and carries this film greatly, without a doubt. It’s just an exceptional performance all the way through maintaining the humanity of the character, and Hawke keeps the tension and terror alive through his performance.
Juliet Rylance holds up equally well. While she doesn’t get much chance to encounter the fear and horror of the film, she is a solid actress who has excellent chemistry with Ethan Hawke. They both bring realistic depth to the history of their marriage, and the emotions that she puts in the role couldn’t be stronger. Both child actors, Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley, do an amazing and commendable job. Every single performance in this film is very sternly rooted in reality, and both Michael and Clare bring likeability and a strong dramatic foundation to their characters. As a whole, this family feels solidly cohesive and real with their own sets of unique problems and personalities. It’s excellent casting and stellar acting through and through.
Fred Dalton Thompson’s always impressed me with his authoritative presence, and he brings some of that with a dash of genuine fairness that a Sheriff should have. He only has two scenes, but he makes a solid impression on an audience. He tells Ellison that he’s not much of a fan of his books, and doesn’t appreciate the criticism and ill attention he brings with him. Yet, he proves his fairness in his second scene with a concern for the Oswalt family’s safety.
I also want to acknowledge the performance of James Ransome as the local Deputy. What starts out as an awkward and somewhat star struck character becomes a guy you can take more seriously with a show of intelligence. Being a fan of Ellison’s work, the Deputy offers to assist him with some research, and as he does, he becomes more wrapped up in the gruesome reality of these murders. He notices the patterns of the crimes, and shows his worth as a capable police officer. Ransome offers up a fine balance of low key charm and heart with an honest seriousness. He becomes concerned for Ellison when things start to become more stressful and disturbing for him, and gives him some sound advice while never disputing the validity of anything Ellison has recently experienced. It’s a surprising highlight of this film, and getting those few moments of perfectly pitched levity are very welcomed.
Beyond just the dark scenes at night, this is a visually dark film all the way around. I’m not sure of why even the daytime scenes are masked in heavy shadow and even silhouettes, but it sure adds to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. Nearly all of the film takes place in that house, and it hardly ever feels warm or inviting. Every scene is given just enough light for the purposes of that scene, but does lack a natural quality since almost none of the indoor lights are ever used. When it gets very dark, it’s only highlights to make out a face, a figure, or a doorway. It’s highly effective, but again, it is a little bothersome that Ellison Oswalt never does just switch on a light to see what’s going on. At least one scene has the power go out entirely, and he has to navigate via his cell phone flashlight. Overall, it is an amazingly well shot film with just the right compositions and framing to service the various moods and tension. The editing is damn good as well allowing shots to linger in order to build up that choked up suspense waiting for the next chilling moment to unfurl itself upon your senses.
All throughout the movie, the score was shockingly powerful and effective. When I saw the end credits, I knew why the score so fucking good. It was done by Christopher Young. This is the man who created the powerful and iconic scores for the first two Hellraiser movies. For Sinister, he cranks up the nail biting, skin crawling, electrifyingly suspenseful music higher than ever before. The tension gets so thick because of his prominent and intense score. This is a masterwork of horror soundtracks that enhances every moment exponentially by its presence. While a few of the clicks and clacks in certain scenes were a bit distracting, overall, this is nerve racking brilliance. It’s especially effective over the Super 8 film clips which have no sound of their own. So, it’s just the gritty visuals with this verbose score playing over them, and it just couldn’t be anymore heart pounding than it was.
This really is a horror film that treats its audience with maturity and intelligence. The investigation aspect doesn’t have Ethan Hawke explaining every little detail to you. It trusts in your attention to detail and intellect to put the pieces together. Thus, it never gets redundant. It keeps moving forward, and gives you enough information to keep you in sync with Ellison Oswalt. You process things as he does, and the pace of the film allows you to do so. Vincent D’Onofrio uniquely portrays Professor Jonas, a local expert on occult crime at the local university, and he is able to shed light on the occult symbols Ellison discovers in the film footage. He explains what they all mean, and possibly what supernatural entity is stalking his family and is responsible for all these murders. This aspect of the film is very smartly conceived and executed. It’s another part of that gradual building of the supernatural elements. You’re not bludgeoned with them from the start. They subversively creep into the film until it saturates it completely. It’s beautiful work that not enough horror filmmakers strive for these days. There’s practically no gore, but plenty of graphic imagery to have you recoiling in terror.
Sinister is frightening to no end hitting you with shocking imagery and chilling sequences that are still sending a shiver over me as I type this. The very last shot of the film is a very unnecessary jump scare, and I imagine it was just the filmmakers wanting to get that extra punch in at the end. Still, that could’ve been done with a strong music cue, but I won’t fault the film over that cheap bit. In a horror film so well crafted, I can afford them that much. I am quite surprised that this was directed by Scott Derrickson who, a long time ago, directed the direct-to-video failure that was Hellraiser: Inferno. Oddly, I caught a few minutes of it on cable the night before seeing Sinister. It’s a gigantic leap forward in talent and skill that I couldn’t admire more. Derrickson also co-wrote the Sinister screenplay with Christopher Robert Cargill, who is actually a movie critic. So, it’s quite pleasing to see this sort of combination work so successfully. Simply said, this is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and I strongly encourage you to go see it! I don’t think you could at all be disappointed in it. It’s likely to scare you right out of your skin.
Back in 1999, the horror genre was a different game. We were in the wake of the post-modern, self-referential Scream clones, but there was room for something a little more creepy and atmospheric. Remakes hadn’t become an epidemic, despite a couple of reviled ones surfacing. Then arose Dark Castle Entertainment who wanted to re-fashion several old William Castle black & white scare flicks for a modern audience. In the long run, their attempts took a quick, steep decline in quality, but their first effort was House on Haunted Hill, which originally starred classic horror icon Vincent Price. This was an interesting effort that left many critics of the day very cold, but I have always found it to be an effective, if slightly flawed film that did entertain.
Eccentric millionaire and amusement park thrill ride mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) learns that his vindictive wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), twistedly chooses to hold her birthday party at the “House on Haunted Hill.” The house used to be the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane until a violent mass murder marked its end decades ago. Being an equally twisted master of thrills, Steven plans to alter his wife’s guest list, but the vengeful spirits of the house have other plans. When the five guests arrive at the house, they are met by Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), whose grandfather designed the house, and whose father helped build it. After a bit of a scare to jump start them all, Steven Price reveals himself and his intentions in grand fashion – he knows no other way. If these guests can all survive the night, they will receive one million dollars each, and if any should die, their money shall be divided up between the survivors. Obviously, none of them know why they’ve been invited to this place, and neither do Steven or Evelyn. However, when the house suddenly and mysteriously goes into lockdown, sealing off all exits, and further bizarre, frightening incidents occur, they slowly begin to heed Pritchett’s claims of the house being haunted by the murderous spirits of the inmates who were killed here decades ago.
House on Haunted Hill is an immensely creepy film. There is a wealth of frighteningly chaotic and psychotic imagery that will have most audiences jumping out of their skin. It has a very classic haunted house ghost story, but with a modern intensity. There’s a mix of subtle, ominous moments, and intense in-your-face, bone rattling scares. One of the best chilling moments is when one of the characters, toting a video camera, comes across a room of ghosts who are only visible via the video camera. She observes them for a moment before they all become aware that she is watching them. The scene is then punctuated with one of the film’s biggest exclamation points. It’s a deeply effective scene on multiple levels with a creepy setup and startling conclusion.
The film really incorporates plenty of dark, eerie atmosphere and a chilling sound design to keep an audience rattled and on edge. The cinematography by Rick Bota is very powerful with an abundance of shadows and clever, moody lighting which set a very rich tone throughout the picture. There’s a very effective score by Don Davis who incorporates some dark, heavy compositions that really drive home the imminent danger and ominous, haunting qualities here. His score never allows you to feel very safe at any moment in the film, but still is able to strongly punctuate the right scares at the right times.
Making the house an actual former asylum for the criminally insane run by a madman was a great idea. It opened the film up to some extremely disturbing visuals such as when Steven Price is locked in the “saturation chamber” which causes sensory overload, and forces him to become delusional. All of that archaic, jagged medical equipment really added a creepy feeling to the bowels of the house. It just has a very hard edged industrial look that brings out a very primal fear. The Dr. Vannacutt character himself comes off as immensely disturbing without ever speaking a word, and seeing his ghost stalk the house always sends chills up and down my spine. The bizarre, jittery motion of Vannacutt presents something so unnatural that it is downright creepy. Not only is this place haunted, but it’s haunted by the mentally disturbed. The creep factor couldn’t be richer in that regard. It’s a very smart creative direction for this remake. It adds something new to the mix without altering the base concept.
The cast here is all gold all the way through. You can never deny the wonderful charismatic work of Geoffrey Rush. He leads the film with a very sly, venomous quality and a rich helping of enthusiasm. He was having a lot of fun playing this role. Steven Price will do anything for a good scare. That makes the character both very interesting and entertaining, but also, a cutthroat foil for certain characters. Being so cunningly manipulative and dastardly egotistical, he is easily viewed as shady and coldly villainous. Overall, Steven Price is a showman, and there couldn’t have been a better actor to bring those elegant, classy qualities to life than Geoffrey Rush. Also, the mustache was a nice touch to his appearance emulating the look of Vincent Price.
There is a dark, spicy performance here from Famke Janssen who is right up to Geoffrey Rush’s level as a conniving, devilish woman. There’s no lack of a dangerous edge to Evelyn as she proves to be capable of wicked, devious turns. The love-hate relationship between the unhappily married Prices is a juicy bit of conflict in the film, and provides a lot of fine material for Rush and Janssen to work with. Their chemistry is deliciously vile, and creates an enthralling, passionate fire to keep the film lively.
Chris Kattan has great comedic energy, as always. He plays up Pritchett’s skittish fear in a very entertaining way. He’s the one person that knows the dreadful reality of the house, and that frightful knowledge really manifests in a very funny yet prophetic performance. It adds levity where needed while bolstering the grim threat that the house does possess. Kattan’s performance really sets a foreboding tone that plays nicely off of Geoffrey Rush’s more mischievous, enjoyably despicable style.
The always vibrant Taye Diggs plays the strong heroic type in the ex-pro baseball player Eddie Baker. Diggs is a bright talent with a lot of charm and charisma who never fails to endear himself to an audience, and that’s no different here. The beautiful Ali Larter from Final Destination fame gives us a solid, assertive performance as Sara Wolfe that really drives her into the forefront by the end. Bridgette Wilson does nicely as the ambitious Melissa, but has the least amount of screentime of the main cast to really breakout. Of course, the wonderfully talented Peter Gallagher brings a subtle, engaging intelligence to Donald W. Blackburn, M.D., and showcases a fine tinge of humor and a perfectly seedy dark side. He has a nice twist in the film that fits comfortably into the treacherous, scheming ways of the Prices. Capping it off is genre great Jeffrey Combs who puts in an excellently psychotic and spine-tingling performance as Dr. Vannacutt.
Granted, aside from Steven and Evelyn Price, the characters aren’t given all that much to work with. They’re essentially one-note characters, but in a lively, entertaining B-movie style with high quality talents behind them. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and basically just wants you to have fun scaring you in the most effective ways possible. With a solid cast that has very natural chemistry together, it makes that approach work very well.
The film does have some highly effective visual effects, and the practical effects are yet again done by the standard bearers of the industry – KNB EFX Group. You’re likely to see them pop up in a lot of reviews I’m doing for Forever Horror Month because of that fact. While House on Haunted Hill is not very heavy on splatter effects, it does have its generous helping of blood, a few graphic images that required only the best to achieve them.
The digital effects near the end when the full dark spirits are unleashed are arguable if they’re up to the standards of 1999 era CGI. Regardless, they still come off as very lacking, in retrospect. To my eyes, they just seem rather typical and not exceptional in conception or execution. They seem more akin to what you’d see if this were adapted into a video game at the time, but for the big monstrous evil to cap off the film, it is a definite nose dive. While some effects in this climactic sequence are a little better than others, the CGI apparition just doesn’t do much at all for me. It’s a failure in design, primarily, and quite lackluster in execution. For a film that showed some strong creativity in its scares and production design, this feels like someone running out of good ideas at the last minute. This digital creation definitely could’ve used more creative thought put into it for a more unique impact.
The ending overall is not the best it could have been. It just sort of shifts into high gear racing to the end credits in the last ten minutes discarding with much of the plot and suspense it had built up, and it dispatches of its characters very swiftly. The richly enjoyable characters just don’t have a conclusion befitting their performances, and are disposed of like ripe smelling trash. While the “darkness” is setup early on, the creep factor of the film is so focused on the Vannacutt spirit and the other twisted ghosts that it just goes a little off-kilter when it takes a turn into that full-on CGI creation stalking the characters. The film could’ve used a far smoother and natural transition into its final act, and had a more prolonged climax to allow for a more graceful resolution for each member of this stellar cast. As it is, a great scene of Steven and Evelyn literally at each others’ throats is cut short to unleash this manifestation of evil. It’s an abrupt shift in the momentum and direction of the film, and in this case, it works against the better strengths of the film. It’s not a bad ending, just one that disappoints when the build up had more potential. A better setup would have been showing this darkness slowly leaking out throughout the film until it finally forms out in the open, thus, allowing for an underlying foreboding tension to build as the film goes on. It would allow the knowledge that this darker, more powerful evil is soon to befall these characters instead of springing it onto an audience in sudden fashion.
I do like the reveal of why the ghosts chose these people to invite to the party. It fulfills the vengeful spirit angle smartly, and gives a purpose to collecting an unlikely group of strangers here. How it pays off at the very end is rather cheap, and adds to the weakness of the film’s conclusion. That whole ending just feels like a different screenwriter took over without a fraction of the ambition for creativity as the rest of the movie. I will give credit to how the Steven Price character continually enhances the danger, tension, and distrust as the film goes on. Giving everyone a handgun is the first unsettling step. The fact that he has the house wired up with video cameras, and likely has plenty of wild tricks setup throughout the house, heightens that shady air of distrust. He establishes the intense, sly situation with a devilish smirk so that everyone can easily accuse Price of these strange occurrences, and they constantly do so throughout the film as people die or go missing. This creates a strong conflict as Price sees the ghost of Vannacutt stalking through the house, knowing exactly who is responsible, even if he doesn’t believe what he is. It’s a smart dynamic which maintains a level of heightened tension, paranoia, and suspense amongst these diverse personalities. There’s enough uncertainty circulating amongst these characters to constantly question what to believe. It keeps them nicely off-balance for an exciting, intense ride. Generally speaking, the premise is nicely laid out with a tight pacing that keeps the thrills coming at a regular interval.
The direction of William Malone is superb as he easily gave us the best film from Dark Castle Entertainment. Obviously, it has its flaws near the end, but up until then, it is a film of solid, spine chilling scares with plenty of creepy atmosphere. It has plenty of fun thrills that will satisfy a late night desire for a haunted house tale. The film is worth seeing just for the entertaining cast with Geoffrey Rush and Chris Kattan the most enjoyable among them. House on Haunted Hill was a decent success for Dark Castle that I think holds more entertainment value than most critics gave it credit for. It’s certainly not a great horror movie, but it’s definitely a good one that delivers on the scares. I do recommend it, but just don’t expect much from the ending. Enjoy the good while it lasts!