Sinister is a horror film that hits all the familiar notes that fans of the genre anticipate while still managing to do the genuinely unexpected. It’s one of those rare horror movies that attempts to do more than simply yell “boo!” to make you jump of out your seat. It tries to make your skin crawl and the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and it succeeds more than it doesn’t – which is impressive enough, given how difficult it is to accomplish that with today’s jaded audiences, but it is doubly impressive that it manages to do so with such familiar material.
The film is directed by Scott Derrickson (of The Exorcism of Emily Rose fame) and stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer struggling in the shadow of his first and only blockbuster book. Ten years after its success and seeking to find a story that will revitalize his career, he moves his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two children (Mark Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) into a suburban house in which a family was brutally murdered, all except for one child who has gone missing. He discovers a box full of grisly 8mm “home movies” that sets him on the trail of a series of ritualistic family murders spanning decades. The further he investigates, the more his life begins to unravel as inexplicable and disturbing events place him in the path of an unknown and ancient terror.
To say any more about the plot would give away the pleasures of its twists and turns, which flirt dangerously with the predictable but often manage to veer away just in time to give audiences something unexpected, if not always shocking. When the film is not leaning on the crutch of the loud startle effect – which, sadly, it does a little too often – it moves away from the tired tropes of the genre and achieves moments of surpassing creepiness and, occasionally, even beauty. By far the film’s biggest strength is the dialogue, which is a perfect balance of self-aware humor and chilling realism, and most importantly is almost never used for stilted exposition, relying instead on largely visual methods of delivering important story elements. The first act has hardly any dialogue at all, which is quite remarkable.
This is a minor point, but it’s also one of the few films that use many elements of contemporary life to great effect. Ellison’s use of his computer is not only very realistic, which is incredibly unusual in Hollywood, but also serves as an effective vehicle for a few of the film’s highlight-reel scares. His phone also features prominently; in particular there is a moment when he uses a very familiar iPhone app to cope with a power outage in a quintessentially modern fashion. It isn’t often that a horror film genuinely feels like it is taking place in a world that’s seen the advent of the Internet.
Of course, as a genre piece, it doesn’t entirely avoid the same head-scratching pitfalls that we’ve seen countless times. The Oswalts have some sort of vendetta against turning on lights at night. Even when Ellison thinks there’s a killer in his house, he insists on sneaking around blindly in a house lit with three desk lamps and a sliver of moonlight. Even when the sun is shining, almost all the windows are curtained! Worse still, Ellison has an awful tendency to do precisely the thing he was warned not to do, and to withhold important information from people who could help him. Lastly, the movie relies too much on getting cheap scares with loud noises, as if it never mustered enough confidence that it’s more daring and effective use of silence and movement could do the job.
Overall, the film is a solid rebound from Derrickson’s unfortunate remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a traditional horror movie with a fresh spirit, familiar enough to entertain genre fans and different enough to give jaded viewers a few thrills that are worth the price of admission.