Sinister, the new movie from director Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), was produced by the same people who made Paranormal Activity. It also once sported the unfortunately obvious title of “Found Footage.” Putting that aside, it’s more than just another Paranormal Activity faux-doc rip-off like we’ve seen many times these past few years, turning the similarly overused horror premise of a family experiencing strange occurrences in their new home into something that feels more cinematic and unique than other similar films.
Ethan Hawke plays true crime novelist Ellison Oswalt, who has moved his family into a new home where he plans to write a new book about the disappearance of a young girl after her entire family was murdered. What his wife (Juliet Rylance) and family don’t realize is that the house they moved into was where those horrible murders took place. Soon after moving in, Ellison finds a box in the attic containing reels of Super 8 film, each one that may hold an answer to the murders and disappearance while tying them into something much bigger.
The film opens simply and silently with film footage of four people, their faces covered in hoods with ropes around their necks, attached to a tree limb high above. It’s an incredibly creepy sequence to watch and one we’ll see over and over throughout the movie as it’s used in a similar manner as the footage from The Ring. We’re obviously not going to give too much away beyond that, but the simple premise involves a man trying to solve a mystery that keeps returning him to this box of Super 8 films, which offers the only clues to solve it, The more Ellison watches these horrifying films, the more he can’t stop watching them as he becomes obsessed with figuring out how they connect to the disappearance of a young girl.
Anyone who saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, knows how Derrickson is able to combine solid character drama with scary moments, and for this one, he has a strong dramatic partner in Ethan Hawke who keep the film grounded in reality, while spending much of the movie roaming around a darkened house – other than Ellison’s cozy sweater, it feels like we’ve seen a lot of similar scenes in movies this year. Even so, Derickson takes his cues from Roman Polanski in establishing an environment that keeps the viewer on edge, starting in a subdued way and building to bigger scares in a way that never feels cheap or derivative. Much of that comes down to an effective scoring by Christopher Young, combined with sound design and FX to create another level of creepiness as we watch what are essentially snuff films. Some of the more dramatic scenes between Ellison and his wife tend to go a little overboard, but they’re balanced by some funnier moments involving a local deputy, played by James Ransone, who shows up and offers running commentary on Ellison’s discoveries.
As more supernatural elements are introduced into the mix, the movie starts to feel less deliberately silly. For instance, Vincent D’Onofrio can barely keep a straight face as he shows up as a college professor, via Skype, to tell Ellison about a demon named “Bughuul” that may be connected to the murders. That name isn’t much better than the “Mr. Boogie” label given to a mysterious figure in the films by a child’s drawing Ellison finds, and the “ghost kids” hovering around Hawke as he walks through the house looks far less scary and cool than intended. For some reason, Derickson’s more “out there” ideas don’t blend as well into the movie as James Wan did with Insidious, which he made with the same producers.
Any smart horror fan who has seen enough of these movies will probably figure out where things are heading, and the ending that hammers home exactly what’s been going on feels unnecessary and clunky. Up until that point, Sinister offers enough seriously scary moments to feel somewhat fresh due to the way Derickson blends overused horror clichés with more original and disturbing visuals, some which work better than others.