‘Sinister’ the best horror film of the year so far (Movie review)

“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.

Shaune's Gravatar(SPOILER WARNING)
I’m surprised that you love this movie as much as you do. I felt there were some ‘misses’ regarding the plot and a bit of a letdown at the end for me.
The movie started out great and I thought to myself “man, I’m not going to sleep tonight”… but by the end, I felt like it was just so-so.
It may be personal preference, but once they started to show the ghost children just.. running around, it went from a horror movie/thriller to a ‘Sixth Sense’ movie for me. Could he see the kids but just missed them each time? Or was only the audience allowed to see them?
Also, I was really disappointed in the jump scares from the evil man in the mask. I think it happened 2-3 times where he ‘poked’ his head in front of the camera.. dumb.
I feel like they did a great job of character development between husband and wife as you mentioned, and even with the children and wall painting, night scares etc…yet.. at the end it was just ‘over’. I think it would have been better to see a bit of distress as he noticed his family captured, or at least some more emotion.. instead, we see him half awake as he is passed out and the movie is wrapped up in a matter of minutes.
I do agree that I thought deputy so and so was in on something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I felt like he may be acting on behalf of the evil or something..
Overall I did enjoy the movie but would rate it in the range of a 7/10. I actually compare it a lot to ‘Insidious’ which I loved, but felt the ending was lackluster.
I am going to see PA4 on Thurmond, but have tempered my expectations after yours and many other reviews.
# Posted By Shaune | 10/29/12 1:08 PM
John Hansen's GravatarThat is a good question. He clearly saw the kids in the attic watching the filmstrip and shushing him, yet it definitely appeared like he did not see them when they were dancing around the house. I guess the ghosts can make themselves be seen when they want. I agree, “Sinister” is in about the same class as “Insidious.” Basically, it’s the best horror movie I’ve seen this year because it doesn’t rely on CGI or violence or gore. It’s just a really good mood piece with a good performance by Ethan Hawke at its core and a handful of good scares. Maybe Baghul popping into the frame was silly, but how about the scene where he turns his head in the still image on the computer screen? That was pretty good stuff, I thought.
# Posted By John Hansen | 10/29/12 5:22 PM