Sinister should be rubbish. The plot is rather silly, numerous things happen that make little sense (and not just because of supernatural shenanigans), and it has a title so generic its feels like they simple couldn’t be assed. However thanks to some excellent make-you-jump moments, a mystery plot that holds enough interest to keep you watching and a creepy atmosphere, it’s a surprisingly effective chiller.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a writer of true-crime books who moves his family to a small town to investigate the murder of four members of a family, and the disappearance of a small girl, for which no perpetrator has ever been found. What he hasn’t told his wife and kids is that the house they’ve moved into is the one where the family were hung from a tree in the backyard.
In the house Ellison finds a box full of 8mm films, on which he discovers footage not only of the murders that took place in his new house, but also various other killings that have taken place across the country over several decades. As he delves further into the case and investigates whether it’s all the work of a single serial killer, strange things keep happening around him. As things get increasingly dangerous and his increasing obsession with what happened adversely impacts his family, Ellison finds it difficult to leave behind a story that could the biggest of his career.
The film has a sense of trying to build a franchise, as once it’s revealed what’s going on, it’s clear this is an idea that could run and run. The movie pulls in all sorts of influences, from Amityville Horror to Seven, so there’s not a huge amount that’s genuinely original, but director Scott Derrickson seems to know what he’s doing, creating a great sense of tension and along with co-writer C. Robert Cargill creates a silly yet oddly involved story that keeps you guessing.
Sinister is also helped enormously by the fact that while horror is generally peopled by incredibly one-dimensional characters, there’s a real effort to make Ellison a fully rounded character (even if everyone else in the film is a bit of a cipher). He’s actually a bit of a selfish-asshole, but he still manages to draw you in, and his single-minded, almost obsessive nature helps paper over some of the sillier things in the film.
And there are quite a lot of silly things, from Ellison’s seeming inability to reach for a light switch when things go bump into the night, to the fact that while Ellison wakes up at the gentlest whisper, his family apparently go completely deaf the moment the sun goes down. I also have a feeling that some people may find the explanation of what’s going on with the murders a little silly, but personally I quite liked it.
But even while there are plenty of moments where you may feel it doesn’t make much sense, Sinister is very entertaining. I have to admit I was sucked in, thanks to the tense atmosphere and storyline. The grainy, 8mm footage of the strange kills is also very effective from the slow hanging of the family in the backyard, to death by lawnmower.
I also found it quite interesting that there are hints at offering a king of meta-explanation for found footage film. While Sinister isn’t a found footage movie itself, it does offer ideas about why someone might feel compelled to film absolutely everything around them (which is one of the biggest implausibilities of Paranormal Activity and its ilk) and keep filming when things turn creepy.
Sinister should do pretty well at the cinema, so don’t be surprised if we get Sinister 2 pretty soon.
Overall Verdict: Rather silly but still very effective, you may be kicking yourself by being drawn into it, but you’ll still be jumping out of your seat.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac