Setting its stall with purpose, the opening moments of Sinister shows 4 people being hung with hoods over their heads. It’s a menacing statement of intent. From there the cut dissolves from the super 8 footage into digital footage as Ethan Hawke and his family move into a new house. Hawke plays true-crime author Ellison Oswalt whose one great success with Kentucky Blood is long behind him. Ellison moves his family from house to house and town to town in search for the next big story and another best seller, such is his desire he moves his family into a crime scene without telling them. In the attic of the new house is a box marked home movies, containing a projector and reels of film.
From the producers of the paranormal activity and insidious, Sinister is part of a tradition of horror films where they are fitted with a vaguely spooky title that hints at the nastiness that may or may not happen. Scott Derrickson’s film has much more going for it. First of all its structure can be defined into one of two groups, the first is presented via traditional camera work bookmarked by the unpleasant opening found footage scene. Those POV sequences are superbly constructed thanks to the combination of stark imagery and unpleasant sound design full of low bass and sharp string work evoking a wonderfully unsettling atmosphere.
Outside of these sequences that display adulation for the joy of projection, much of the horror carries on the MO of unsettling the viewer with minimal dialogue and droning black metal-esque soundscapes. Derrickson’s direction is at its best when the viewer is experiencing the horror with Hawke. When it gets more precise and starts using the jump scare it loses its footing a little, doubly so when all the major moments are in the trailer. Even if the film is bound by the laws of contemporary mainstream horror, at its best Sinister is satisfying in the creepiness of the darkness.
Although its genre intent crosses various sub-genre including, but by no means exclusive to, bad seed, haunted house and demonic possession, it is above all else a film with a mystery. This mystery sees Ellison trying to figure out the truth behind these murders, fuelled by his obsession to recapture his past success. With many scenes of Ethan Hawke watching scratchy old VHS tapes with his TV interviews. For the mere presence of valuing story over a thinly veiled procession of things to scare the viewer, Sinister becomes the best straight horror picture to hit the megaplex this year. The sad thing is that statement is as damning as it is complimentary.
As good as Sinister can be, and as good as Ethan Hawke is in the lead role, more targeted problems set in. It’s become as clichéd as the modern genre piece itself to comment on the fact that exposition is the greatest enemy of the haunted house picture. The big bad grows from the ember of the question “who is holding the camera?” and escalates as the film progresses. Unfortunately the mystery finally starts to unfold when Ellison makes strides in his investigation. Through this the film flits between good and bad, before settling on the pedestrian in its final moments.
It does damage the film, but instead of taking the film beyond the point of no-return it’s a class of ending that comes with 90% of the horror films filling the market. Its one of the easiest answers a horror film can provide, ergo it comes across as contrived and lazy. As deflating as those final moments are, the thrills of the journey are more than enough to fill over the cracks of the third act.