The horror genre more than probably any genre has been abused by cash-ins, remakes and flat out inexcusably low quality production. It’s Halloween season which means that the genre is firing on all cylinders to deliver its biggest cash grabs yet with what are usually considered the year’s biggest horror movies. This year is no different as we have our big horror sequel of the year Paranormal Activity 4 and Silent Hill Revelation which is a follow-up to 2006’s video game adaption.Sinister appears to be a movie that hearkens itself more to the idea of the first Saw or Insidious in the sense that it is trying to make something low key and more creative than a studio horror movie. Does Sinister provide any unique scares or is this yet another cash grab for studios trying to cater to the Halloween season?
Sinister follows washed up tru-crime writer Ellison Oswalt(Ethan Hawke) who moves his family into a house in which an entire family was recently murdered in hopes that he can get another huge hit by writing about some of the fuzzy details surrounding the murderer. Ellison keeps the murders a secret from his wife Tracey(Juliet Rylance) and two kids Ashley(Clare Foley )and Trevor(Michael Hall D’Addario) until the rumors around town slowly but surely make their way to the rest of the family. Not long after moving in Ellison discovers an old Super 8 projector and a box full of films. It does not take Ellison long to realize that the films are showing the recorded deaths of other families including the one that was carried out in the house he is residing in. In many instances Ellison almost turns over his evidence to the police, but does not in hopes that he can write a book that will bring him back in the spotlight for his career. The deeper Ellison gets into the investigation the darker it gets as he eventually stumbles onto a much bigger case that is far more sinister than a serial killer.
This movie has a story that we have seen done before to some extent, but I do not think we’ve seen it done with the level of depth that Sinister carries it to. In many ways this movie takes a found footage horror, mystery/suspense thriller, and a haunted house movie and brings them all together to make something that feels surprisingly fresh. Despite the fact that this film does in fact hit many of the same beats as you would expect from a horror movie, it does so in a way that feels more complex. What I mean is that some of the expected scares are not there just as a way to catch the audience off guard but as a way to build tension and intensity to the slowly building plot. The movie is very much a slow burn horror flick as the plot gradually gets darker and more intense with each passing scene. This movie is not innocent of jump scares and many of the tropes of typical horror movies, but it also delivers some twists that go much deeper than cheap scares. The ending to this horror movie is somehow predictable and surprising at the same time. Once you make it to the final act of the movie it is very easy to see how things are going to play out, but the surprising part about all of it is that the movie does play out just as dark as you might expect which is why I find this a grade or two above most Hollywood horror movies.
The thing that sets Sinister apart from most modern horror movies is its really human connection in Ellison. What is interesting about Ellison is that he makes many of the ridiculous mistakes any horror movie protagonist would make which of course has the audience shouting at him not to make his absolutely logic defying decisions, but unlike nearly every horror movie with such a protagonist Sinister develops him in a way that gives reason to his incredibly unreasonable actions. Writer C. Robert Cargill smartly writes this character who is so desperate to publish a hit that he will stop at nothing to find out what is going on. Ellison actually becomes a fairly complex character by horror movie standards as both the writing and Ethan Hawke really show the different facets of this character who wants to provide for his family, wants to be famous, and also wants to be liked by everyone involved. Once his motives are on the table and he shows to what lengths he’ll go to achieve it, it justifies his absurd actions to continue investigating when at every turn something is telling him to stop. The supporting characters in this movie are fairly flat with the exception of the town’s deputy(James Ransone) who is comedic, but also proves to be of some help to Ellison.
This story had elements of success, but writer C Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson bring a real understanding of the tone and what they want this movie to feel like. On top of the story which is solid and the development of the main character, this movie brings all of the right technical aspects to the table with some smart editing and a soundtrack that makes this film feel even darker, edgier, and more terrifying than the base story allows itself to be. If you were to remove any one of the technical elements the film would suddenly become less intense which is a statement to just how well all of the different elements in this movie build off each other with not one of them feeling flat out dysfunctional.
Overall Sinister manages to to take a somewhat familiar idea and make it new by incorporating other genres into the story, present a character that is well rounded and believable despite his absolutely bonehead decisions, and create a direction and tone that is absolutely ominous to the core. Make no mistake, Sinister has its flaws a couple of them being jump scares and a somewhat predictable endgame that once again plays into some familiar tropes of the genre, but to say that this movie is not terrifying or unnerving at times would be absolute denial.
Sinister manages to take concepts from mystery suspense thrillers, haunted house movies, and found footage films and bring them all together to create a story that feels fresh. The film has an incredibly dark and ominous tone that is at times undermined by jump scares and familiar tricks seen in Hollywood. The movie builds to an ending that becomes somewhat predictable in the final act of the movie, but manages to have enough shock value and surprise to feel incredibly satisfying and terrifying.
By horror movie standards this is probably one of the best written/acted characters in the genre in years. While this character does several things you’d expect the lead in a horror film to do, he is given enough depth and dimension for all of the idiocracy to make sense. Hawke gives this unlikeable character real reason for the audience to care as his intentions aren’t completely self-serving.
Scott Derickson does a great job at bringing C. Robert Cargill’s script to life by bringing a real depth and understanding to the material.This movie manages to bring several different elements to into the fold to make this horror movie something that really is unnerving. The film has some really great cinematography by genre standards, some creative editing, and a soundtrack that if removed would change the dark and ominous vibes this movie is giving off in nearly every single scene.
Overall Effectiveness of the Movie: 8.0
This movie may play into many of the tricks found in horror movies, it may have a third act that is somewhat predictable, and it may rely on jump scares to build tensions, but at the end of the day this movie is filled with dark, ominous, and completely unnerving ideas and scenarios that have definitely stuck with me after the credits rolled which is the most I can ask for from a horror movie. This movie certainly succeeds in doing some (wink, wink)Sinister things to its audience.
Overall Score: 8
I’ve intentionally left plot details vague so to keep many of the movie’s reveals a secret. I suggest that if you are interested in this movie then it is probably smart to stay away from the promotional material of this film as it gives away more than I would have liked.