Horror movies and slasher films embody entirely different compartments of cinema. Yet, they strive to achieve the same thing: getting viewers to wet their Jockeys. Many might argue that solid slashers don’t exist today, while solid horrors are still few and far between. Classics like “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” simply float in an estimable league of their own, but does that mean these genres are essentially dead? Meet “Sinister.” A film teeming with recycled elements and cues still manages to deliver a smart, blood-curdling script — synthesizing supernatural whodunit-ness with an ambitious dosage of disturbing imagery.
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Spook-fanatic director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) seems to have birthed his first mature project in “Sinister.” After shocking millions in “Emily Rose,” Derrickson has sculpted a hybrid of his previous film and “Paranormal Activity,” with a few added-value components. This director doubtlessly knows how to scare the masses, and his missteps in “Sinister” are more redundancies than downright plot errors.
Ellison Oswalt (played patiently by Ethan Hawke, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) is a has-been horror writer who moves his family into a house formerly owned by a mysteriously massacred family (unbeknownst to his wife and kids). Why? Because it’s the setting of his new nonfiction book: one of several interconnected family murders in which the youngest child went missing while the remaining family was sadistically killed. A lone box in the attic filled with disgusting “home videos” proves to be the nucleus of Ellison’s journey to uncover the facts and finish his story.
Odd, inexplicable sounds and occurrences begin to unfold at the house. Ellison’s mind plays visual tricks and consequently provokes his eventual psychological meltdown. His wife is worried. His kids exhibit bizarre behavior. And all Ellison wants to do is complete what could be his “finest breakthrough” work yet. Mania takes people to twisted places.
Once viewers advance past the “not again?” sequences and quips (and there are plenty) — the creaking floors and flickering lights — they should feel something similar to waking up in the middle of the night as a youngster: absolute fear. “Sinister” deftly incorporates the slow pace of Michael Myers in “Halloween” while still frenetically experimenting with the camera lens. It’s a slow-fast marriage that makes this film standout visually. And the musical score fits nicely.
Most of the credibility lost in “Sinister” is due to the one-dimensional, mundane characters. Ellison takes the cake easily. His wife (played gracefully by Juliet Rylance, “Animal”) barely makes the podium. The remaining cast is trash. His strange daughter paints all over the walls with no explanation while his long-haired son endures frequent night terrors. Unfortunately, most of the weird contributions made by these meaningless characters are never revisited, causing audiences to feel cheap and exploited.
Ultimately, any film whose opening shot consists of four people being hanged is bound to turn some stomachs. “The Sixth Sense” did this. “The Ring” did this. There is something inherently discomforting about movies of people watching movies. Your control is even further removed. “Sinister” manipulates this theory to the point of suffocation. And that is why this film works, despite its peppered flaws.
The titles of the home videos Ellison finds read as follows: “Family Hanging Out,” “Pool Party,” “BBQ” and “Sleepy Time.” They aren’t what one expects by any means. Maybe the shock factor is abused slightly in “Sinister,” but given the timely bits of supernatural, psychosis, creepy children and sheer darkness, it gives viewers something to fill a yearly void: a good, not great, horror film.