Sinister proves that it’s possible to take a well-worn, generic set-up and do something unexpected and worthwhile with it. By keeping a strong handle on atmosphere and scares that stand out from the haunted house crowd this is one of the strongest mainstream horrors to come along in quite a while.
The plot is nothing you haven’t seen before; a family, headed by writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke), move into a new home in a small American town. He is there to write his book on the murder of the family and disappearance of a little girl who lived in the new house, much to the chagrin of the local law enforcement. Not long after moving in he discovers a mysterious box in the attic filled with reel footage of a series of grisly murders that took place over many decades. But after watching them as part of his investigation he soon starts being plagued by a sinister figure that can be seen in the footage.
Directed by Scott Derrickson (who made the chilling The Exorcism of Emily Rose back in 2005) returns to the horror genre with not so much a bang as a creeping, skin crawling whisper with just a few bumps in the night thrown in for good measure. There are enough jump-scares to satisfy anyone who likes their horror to lean to that side of the scale but this is ultimately a film of pure atmosphere and startlingly horrific imagery.
Once Ellison puts the first reel into the projector – a repeated motif that hearkens back to analogue days where it wasn’t so easy to explain things away with Photoshop or fancy digital editing – and we witness the gruesome events within the reels it becomes an unnerving balance of being scared to see what’s on the next reel but being unable to look away. Like a lot of great horrors, Sinister invites you to bring a little of yourself into the experience.
The film is “from the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious,” and it sits as an effective halfway house between the two of them, with a healthy dose of the American remake of The Ring thrown in for good measure. Much like Insidious in particular, a supremely creepy horror that was unjustly bashed by many upon release, this gets by on tense atmosphere as much as it does sensory shock. And like Insidious it instills a feeling of being unsafe, as if something is always lurking in the room, playing on fears of what might be there as opposed to going for obvious gore tactics.
Predictably the plots creaks and wobbles as it gets into the inevitably heightened third act, with a few too many instances of over explanation and connecting of the dots that frankly we could have worked out on our own, thank you very much. There’s also a character that pops up here and there throughout who is basically a convenient plot device for Ellison to get some necessary information. It’s this need to lay things out in black and white that ultimately holds Sinister back from being truly great.
Having said that, judging Sinister on the level it’s aiming for it’s actually an effective piece of modern horror, standing head and shoulders among a sea of time-wasting production-line horrors. It pushes passed its genre clichés – shedding new light on found footage – to make for a genuinely creepy, unsettling experience.
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