With all the ‘found footage’ horror films still in vogue more than a decade after The Blair Witch Project, here’s one that adds something fresh to the concept: Sinister features a traditional (read: polished) narrative around its premise, and while that narrative isn’t perfect, it helps make the found footage – 8mm home movie murder films – all the more terrifying.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime novelist who found widespread success in one of his earlier books but has struggled recently. In an attempt to recapture his former glory, he moves his family into an isolated small town home to conduct some research into a local crime; unbeknownst to his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and children Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), the house is the scene of the quadruple homicide that Ellison is researching.
In the attic, Ellison discovers a box containing a projector and some innocently-labeled 8mm film reels: Family Hanging Out, Pool Party, Lawn Work, and others. Of course, when he sits down to watch them, he discovers they aren’t innocent at all.
The 8mm “found footage” film reels are the best part of the film: Ellison watches them at night, alone, in the dark, on a white sheet strung up against the wall. We hear the whirr of projector, which blends into Christopher Young’s low-key, droning electronic soundtrack, but the films themselves are silent. And then terrible things happen, in this dead silence, no bravura filmmaking to heighten the scare. It’s so unsettling, and that creepy vibe stays with the film long after the 8mm films have played out.
Sinister was directed (and co-written) by Scott Derrickson, who previously made the effective courtroom chiller The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the middling remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. While these films contain issues at a structural/story level, they showcase an evocative atmosphere and a director in control of his craft.
In Sinister, Derrickson shows that he knows how to shoot horror: he creates that chilly vibe and some incredible tension, and never deflates it for the sake of a cheap scare. While there are ‘jump’ scares in the film, they rarely serve as the finale to an intense scene that would allow us to breathe a sigh of relief. The scares generally aren’t cheap, and usually serve to heighten the creepy factor rather than relieve it.
I love how Sinister uses technology to emphasize isolation: 95% of the film is set in the house, and about half of it is just Hawke’s character alone. Traditionally in these films, the lead will visit a library to do research, get some 35mm film developed, consult a professional; here, Ellison does research on Google, takes snapshots with his mobile phone, and communicates with a local professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) through Skype. But he’s always alone, having isolated himself in this haunted house through modern convenience.
Everything works so well in Sinister, save for one nagging concern: the storyline. There are a number of issues here: like most horror films, Sinister over-explains itself, and loses some of the horror along with the mystery.
It also explains too much too early: at a certain point, it’s clear what the rules are and where this is going. And while the filmmaking creates some palpable tension, there’s little tension in the story: Ellison has no active plan, he’s just a sponge absorbing the creepy goings-on.
But while this may not be objectively a great film, it’s just about as good as it gets in the horror genre: an incredibly scary ride, and the best horror film of the year. If you’re looking for some cinematic jolts this Halloween season, skip the redundant and unsatisfying Paranormal Activity 4 – Sinister really delivers the goods.