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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



Many people consider the horror genre the lowliest form of cinema. Their inherent focus on death can be off-putting and as time has gone on, they have gotten more and more grotesque. To not enjoy the genre is, at this point, understandable. That’s why, as a critic, I’m supposed to scoff at torture porn movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. And I do. But one film I believe is unfairly lumped in with those films is Saw. The sequels are another matter (although some, like number six, at least manage to provide interesting commentary), but the first film was original and thought provoking and, contrary to popular belief, didn’t concentrate on a large cast of no names getting mangled by overcomplicated contraptions. It was a tight psychological thriller with two skillfully developed main characters who became more nuanced as it went on (though it was by no means perfect). The duo behind that movie, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, have been on my radar ever since that film. They are a force to be reckoned with in the horror community, especially after their severely underrated 2007 film, Dead Silence. Their newest, Insidious, isn’t quite as good as those two films, but given the state of horror these days, it’s still worth a look.

Husband and wife Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have just moved into a new house. They haven’t quite finished unpacking yet and their days are hectic. Josh works hard during the day while Renai tries to balance out the care of her three children with composing piano music. Suddenly, however, their oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) sadly and unexplainably falls into a coma. Three months pass and he still isn’t awake, but Renai is beginning to hear and see things in the house and she thinks his coma might have been brought on by something not of this realm.

Insidious is your typical haunted house story. Things go bump in the night, faint apparitions appear behind thinly veiled bed canopies and doors creak open and close. Those are only a few of the sub-genre’s tried and true tricks the film borrows. It’s most certainly not original, but it excels in a few key areas and manages to frighten on more than one occasion, particularly in the first act.

The opening scenes perfectly set the tone for the film and James Wan’s visual style is eerie without being overbearing, employing black and white footage in the opening credits montage and canted camera angles to show that something is not right in the house. He has a visual eye for the macabre. Even when things seem normal, you get a sense something unseen is close by. It’s an effect that is not easy to pull off, but Wan does it here.

These early moments promise a slow building ghost movie, similar to something like 1980’s effective chiller, The Changeling, and this is when it works best. Ghosts are left hidden or at quick glimpses and its use of shadows keeps you on the edge of year seat, aware that something could be hidden beneath the shroud of darkness. It’s about what you don’t see, which makes it all the more frightening. Unfortunately, this tight, focused ghost movie becomes more and more ridiculous, and even occasionally laughable, as it goes on. The unsettling feeling present in the early scenes all but vanishes, leaving you only with predictable jump scares as it spirals down the same problematic pathway many horror movies do. As the ghosts become more prominent and the filmmakers put them front and center, it becomes decidedly less scary, stripping away whatever terrifying design your imagination has conjured up and replacing it with something that, frankly, looks kind of stupid.

Insidious, despite its many problems, is anchored by two terrific performances from two accomplished actors and it manages to redeem itself in the last ten minutes or so in a climax that mixes the dreamlike visuals of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the exploration of a survival horror video game like Silent Hill. In the end, Insidious squanders its opportunity to become a truly scary movie, but a few inspired moments and effective frights make it a fun diversion nonetheless.

Insidious receives 3/5