Sinister is a cut above the rest
It’s that special time of year again when studios dump their usually flat and often absurd horror projects into cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. Yearly instalments of Paranormal Activity have become the norm alongside various other sequels and rehashes that end up as forgettable as their scares are cheap. So with its “found footage” premise, it may seem easy to immediately toss Scott Derrickson’s Sinister onto the rubbish heap along with all the other boring, unoriginal horror flicks to be imported from across the pond in recent years. But wait! What’s that? Sinister actually has a thrilling mystery at the centre of its suspense-horror shenanigans? Yes, Sinister quickly establishes that this is not a horror film to be dismissed as it smartly drip-feeds intriguing, disturbing details from the film’s opening seconds and onward.
Ethan Hawke is a true-crime author looking to revive his faltering career by exploring the case of a missing girl and her murdered family. Unbeknownst to his increasingly impatient wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), Hawke’s Ellison moves his family of four into the very home the family occupied and died at. It doesn’t take long for the creepiness to be cranked to eleven as Ellison comes across a box of Super 8 home movies which have contain the grisly ends of multiple families, spread over several decades. It’s a clever, logical use of “found footage” that is highly effective without the film becoming reliant upon it. As the house begins to shows signs of something supernatural, Ellison becomes paranoid and turns to the bottle to ease his mind. By focusing on a writer wrapped up in such unsettled circumstances, Sinister evokes the master of horror literature, Stephen King and, beyond a moment that gives the game away too early, Derrickson’s film holds up alongside the author’s spookiest works.
The underappreciated Hawke is an excellent fit for the novelist who unravels in ways his trusty cardigan never would. Seeking to recapture fame and fortune, his Ellison badly wants to press on in spite of a series of inexplicable scares he and his family experience. Clare Foley is a strong choice for Ellison’s daughter, but the entire cast hits all the necessary notes without straying into cheesy horror trope territory.
It’s Derrickson and co-scriptwriter C Robert Cargill’s story that makes Sinister an exceptional example of the genre. It’s a well-crafted ghost story that feels chilling and suspenseful throughout. Without relying on cheap scare tactics, it has time to invest in a solid backstory that slowly comes into focus the deeper Ellison digs (though the few times Sinister does go for a sudden scare, they’re well executed). It’s a shame Sinister tips its hand when it does, though, as the moment it does so is both too soon and nowhere near as subtle as Derrickson clearly hoped it would be. While his direction provides Sinister with a suitably mysterious and menacing atmosphere, it also goes too heavy on the darkness, quite literally, as the film frequently feels under lit in day time scenes where such dimness serves no narrative purpose.
Imperfections aside, Sinister is a haunting film that exudes an unshakable eeriness throughout. Hawke is a stellar lead, but it’s Derrickson’s unnerving ghost tale that that makes Sinister such a ruthless joy. It’s too rare a treat to see a horror film willing to take its time in going to such dark places, especially whilst firmly commanding the audience’s attention for the duration, but Sinister does exactly that on the road to another genre rarity: a satisfying conclusion. For sceptics and horror fans alike, Sinister is to be neither missed nor dismissed. 8/10