Sinister hearkens back to classic horror films. It isn’t overly violent and relies more on mood and imagery to create a disturbing and frightening atmosphere. It doesn’t rush through its story to please the ADD generation, but builds slowly, tightening the tension until it becomes too much to bear. The film, quite frankly, is terrifying. It stumbles in a few key areas and relies a tad too much on played out horror movie tropes (the creepy kid thing isn’t scary anymore, let’s move past it), but it’s likely to chill you to the core. It’s one of the scariest movies in at least a decade, so if fright is fun to you, you won’t have more fun at the movies than you will with Sinister.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer. He investigates real life murders and tries to uncover things the initial police investigation may have missed. Part of his process is moving into or near the house or area that the heinous event took place, which has just led him to an eerie house in what appears to be a fairly standard Midwest town. In this house, a family was murdered, all but the smallest child who went missing. Not too long after moving in, Ellison finds a box of old film reels in the attic. Curious, he brings them down, hooks them up and begins to watch them. Each reel depicts the brutal murder of a family and they are accompanied by spooky symbolism and a mysterious man looking on. Eventually, strange things begin to happen in the house and Ellison begins to realize he may have put himself and his family in danger.
Sinister begins with footage from one of those film reels and it perfectly captures the tone of what is to come. What is shown should be left for the viewer to experience, but it immediately crawls under your skin, and does so without resorting to cheap tactics. It’s a violent exhibition, but it isn’t gory. It’s also scary, but it isn’t in your face. Such restraint is held throughout nearly the entire movie. Aside from a couple “Gotcha!” moments (including a horrible one at the end that effectively ruins the sense of eeriness the film had captured up to that point), the film is more about ambiance. It’s more about the fear of what’s going to happen rather than of what actually does. Sinister understands something that very few modern horror movies do: feeling is key. Emotionally unsettling the viewer is more effective than occasionally making them twitch.
What it also understands is that horror movies need a fleshed out script and good acting just as much as any other movie. The bane of the genre these days is its neglect of story and list of no name actors unconvincingly hamming it up onscreen. Sinister, though its story is admittedly familiar, feels so unique because so much care was put into its creation. The characters aren’t just fodder for the creature to take out like in other horror films. Here, they are fully realized with complex emotions and motivations. The best scene, in fact, isn’t even a scary one. It’s a dramatic scene between Ellison and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), as they fight over Ellison’s lies that brought them to live in a house where grisly murders took place. Most horror films wouldn’t even consider including this scene, but something tells me Sinister's filmmakers knew their movie would be incomplete without it.
At the end of the day, Sinister is an above average horror film with above average acting and a keen understanding of what is truly scary, but it nevertheless falls into traps of the genre that are seemingly impossible to avoid. One can’t help but wonder why Ellison, who suspects that whoever committed the murders depicted on the film reels planted the box for him to find, wouldn’t move his family, if not himself, out of the house immediately. This is a horror movie standard that was brilliantly addressed in James Wan’s underrated Insidious and Sinister falls prey to it. In fact, there are plenty of “Don’t go in there!” and “What was he thinking?” moments throughout the entire film, but one must forgive (or go with) these moments. Without them, there wouldn’t be a horror movie to watch. The one genre misstep Sinister embraces and actually improves on is the comedic relief. Too many horror movies throw comedy into the mix only to disappointingly break the tension; whatever goodwill it had built to that point dissipates. In Sinister, these moments are a welcome reprieve. They give you a chance to calm down from the unrelenting terror you’ve just sat through in the scene prior.
Sinister will scare you so bad, you’ll feel the pulse racing in your feet, and that’s in spite of a few key moments that don’t work, including a horribly unfrightening slow motion scene involving a dark house, long hallways and children. Its biggest issue is probably its ending, which feels all too abrupt after such a slow, gradual build, but they say it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. The same holds true for Sinister and by the end of this journey, you won’t need to pull over to pee. You’ll have already done so in your pants.
Sinister receives 4/5