IMDB Summary: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.
Horror films tend to firmly root themselves in their respective subgenre of choice. Sinister is a kind of hybrid film that blends current trends of found footage with peripheral creaky house thrills rolled up in a supernatural mythology package. Taking place almost entirely in one setting, its eeriness operates on several different levels, the most startling of which is the grainy Super-8 reels that Ethan Hawke’s hopelessly narcissistic character happens upon.
The slow burn investigation hashes out the discoveries in digestible doses. A lot of the expositional backstory in these kinds of films can become quickly convoluted, somehow being overly complicated and all-too familiar. Ghost wants revenge? No way! But Sinister keeps the mystery going and comes up with a tale that’s familiar in its Horror 101 structure, but is still just original enough to remain compelling. It slowly ratchets up tension using escalating repetition. In the case of the Super-8 films, we know what is going to happen in each one, but the suspense is driven through the question of ‘how?’ and the unsettling normalcy that occurs at the beginning of each. Every time Hawke hears creaks and bumps, something slightly more alarming occurs each time. And as the film progresses, his two children become more and more affected by their surroundings.
Grounding, and in fact elevating, all of this is Ethan Hawke who has a habit of making films better with his presence. His casting is crucial since a lot of Sinister is a one-man show. Can he just be in everything? Playing the only developed character, (the others can be boiled down to loyal and concerned wife, creative daughter and typical teenage boy) the writers do something pretty shrewd with his characterization. Ellison is trying to build his ‘legacy’, as he arrogantly puts it. His only true-crime bookselling smash was ten years ago. Two duds later and he’s back at square one, only with added desperation. He moves his family into the house where the crime he’s investigating took place, without telling them by the way. Basically the fella’s an asshole.
The screenwriters use his arrogance, drive and desperation to act as the answer to all of those ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t go in the attic you fucking idiot!’ exclamations we so often have in horror films. Where other films use par for the course logic to excuse its characters’ ceaselessly poor judgment, screenwriters Scott Derrickson (also director) and C. Robert Cargill make us understand why Ellison makes the very silly decisions he does.
There is one type of scare employed in Sinister which did not work for me; the ever-popular creepy children. It is employed pretty heavily towards the end, which causes some of the tension to somewhat evaporate. The spooky kid trope can really get under the skin but the problem is it so rarely works. And what’s worse is that it is used all the time. Writers seem to think that dead-eyed innocents are an automatic scare-tactic win but it demands precise execution. In this regard, Sinister doesn’t have the goods and it becomes distracting at points. But it has so much else working in its favor for this to do too much damage.
It must be said that the throbbing industrial score by Christopher Young is easily one of the best scores I have heard this year. It pulsates through each scene, subtly switching it up in some surprising ways. Derrickson’s use of darkness, space and sound are consistently disquieting.
Sinister is without a doubt the scariest film I have seen in quite some time. It finds ways to disturb without resorting to gore and much of its imagery makes quite a lasting impression. It had me actively stressed, often dodging center screen with my eyes in jittery anticipation. Only when I left the theater did I realize just how tense my body had been throughout. When a film can get me that on-edge, all shortcomings be damned. Sinister more than gets the job done.