‘Sinister’: How Sound Changes the Audience’s Role


A few weeks back, I checked out Sinister, a horror film with Ethan Hawke that inevitably is a member of the “creepy children” genre that’s become especially popular lately, but has always been popular on the greater horror landscape.

While the movie itself is intriguing without ever being especially captivating — I kind of tire of horror movies in which there seems to be no real danger, other than drawing the attention of spooky entities — it does some very cool things with sound throughout. It’s that use of sound more than anything else that drives both the surreal nature of the story and presentation, and the oppressive atmosphere of the movie.

Throughout, Sinister uses a lot of deep tones and low, pervasive music to create an ambiance of sound, especially during those moments when Ethan Hawke’s character, Ellison, is wandering around at night, plagued by paranormal weirdness. During the daylight hours, ambient sound is kept a minimum, as is music; at night, things take a turn.

The paranormal-ness Ellison is dealing with derive from films he finds in the attic of his new house, all of which depict murders of various families. Each night after first watching the films, he encounters additional strange happenings: the projector turning on by itself, strange sounds through the house, and so on. The worse it gets, the more strange tones and music make their way into Ellison’s experience. This use of sound has a doubly important role: First, it signifies strangeness in Ellison’s perception, which is important. Second, it renders the perceptions of us, the audience, untrustworthy as well.

There are moments in which Sinister purposely plays the music of the scene against us, when we realize that what was being played over the theater’s speakers wasn’t just for our benefit, but actually made up of sounds Ellison is hearing. Other times, the humming music shows us the desolate nature and thick atmosphere of those nights he spends alone in front of the projector. This is an otherworldly time and place for Ellison, and the sounds of it bleed together in strange ways. They cannot be trusted.

It gets worse as the movie goes on. There are several occasions during which creaks and thumps draw Ellison through the house in search of possibly¬†phantasmagorical¬†intruders, and the sounds projected during these times seem to come from everywhere — specifically, from places they could not. As a horror movie, Sinister is also going out of its way to unnerve us with the tricks of filmmaking, of course, but in terms of sound this has a double effect of not only priming us for the occasional booming sting to make us throw a little popcorn, but to make the whole movie experience something more transportive than if Sinister relied more on silence.

“It’s a movie,” the filmmakers tell us by playing the often tonally out-of-place music throughout the movie. But that music also robs us of the ability to objectively acknowledge what it is we’re hearing and perceiving — putting us on the same shaky footing as Ellison.

For that, I really enjoyed Sinister. There are other things about the movie that are less powerful or work less well, but its choices in sound design are very interesting.

Published by Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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