“Sinister” is the best horror film I’ve seen so far this year, largely because it isn’t content to just do the minimum to scare you (like “Paranormal Activity 4”) and it doesn’t rely too heavily on final-act spectacle (like “The Possession” and, judging by the previews, “Silent Hill: Revelation 3D”).
A game Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true crime writer searching for his “In Cold Blood.” He moves with his wife and two kids into the small-town home of a murdered family. He finds a box of Super 8 films in the attic that show some creepy stuff. A lesser movie would be content to just be a scare-fest from this point forward, but “Sinister” is smarter than that: It is willing to play out the mystery to the end. And whereas a lesser film might not even address questions like “Who the heck is filming this?,” “Sinister” does. In fact, it’s the first thing Ellison writes down on his notepad.
Written and directed by Scott Derrickson, who has a few previous horror films on his resume but probably none this good, “Sinister” has just the right amount of family stuff, too, and it nicely incorporates the daughter’s bedroom wall paintings and the son’s night terrors into the story. (And I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the scenes of Ellison arguing with his wife are almost comedic compared to the darker stuff — it makes for a nice tonal break.)
Sometimes with the soundtrack, I couldn’t tell what were the sounds on the filmstrip, what were the sounds around the house and what was the movie score, but the combination effectively kept me on edge. It’s sort of like the opening-credits theme of “American Horror Story,” but more subtle.
I loved the scenes of Ellison splicing together Super 8 film (of course, he has to look up how to do it on Google) and also how he uses the modern technology of his laptop computer to pause and zoom in and all that good stuff.
There are a fair number of scenes of Ellison wandering through the dark house to investigate strange noises, but it never gets old because there’s a bit more payoff each time, both in terms of ratcheted-up scares and further clues. It culminates in a payoff that’s both scary and sensible in terms of the plot. Throughout, “Sinister” makes effective use of shadows and camera angles, never overdoing the jump scares, but leaving you looking at every corner of the frame to anticipate such a tactic. This is a normal one-story, three-bedroom house with a small backyard, but darn if it doesn’t look scary.
“Sinister isn’t groundbreaking, but it really knows what it’s doing.
Now here are a few additional thoughts for those who have already seen the film (SPOILER WARNING):
- Did anyone else think Deputy So-and-So was going to be connected with the crimes? When Ellison agrees to team up with the deputy, yet fails to get his last name, I was absolutely certain that the deputy would turn out to be one of the missing kids from the filmstrips, all grown up and continuing the string of killings. And I was a bit disappointed in “Sinister” for being so obvious. Yet that turned out to be a red herring, so I applaud the film for maneuvering me off track.
- This is yet another horror film this year, along with “The Woman in Black” and “The Possession,” where it seems like we’re watching a haunted house movie only to find out it’s the people, not the house, that are haunted. Interestingly, the second house in “Sinister” seems to have even more creepiness to it than the first one. It’s older, bigger, draftier-looking. Basically, it seems to have more nooks and crannies for ghosts to jump out at you.
- In addition to the aforementioned funny spousal arguments, a much darker brand of humor comes from the titles of the filmstrips, such as “Pool Party” and “Lawn Work.” I love the final kicker: “House Painting ’12.”
What did you think of “Sinister?” Best horror movie of the year so far, or does another film rank higher on your list? Share your thoughts below.