Sinister starts out with a disturbingly real 8mm film of a family of four being hung from a tree in their own backyard. The realism of this scene alone borders on feeling like an actual "snuff film". As viewers, we know that's not the case, but had you stumbled across this footage in some dusty old box in your new home, you'd probably think otherwise. It's this tragedy that prompts a struggling tue crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) to move his family into the very same house where the tragedy happened, desperate to become relevant in his field once again. Once upon a time Ellison wrote an acclaimed true crime book, but has had nothing but duds since then. Plus he's also earned himself the ire of most police officers who he frequently criticizes as being inept in their investigations. However Ellison doesn't tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) or their two kids, Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) that he's uprooted them from their previous home to live in a house where the previous tenants were found hanging by their necks. Although he tries to shield his family from the grizly details of his work, he's not exactly father of the year. When Ellison and family arrive at their new home, it's not long until he finds a box of 8mm films and a projector in the attic. Which he goes through as his curiosity soon turns into an obsession that could very well turn dangerous.
I loved the throwback to the old 8mm recordings. I thought the poor quality added a real sense of verisimilitude to what we were witnessing. I don't think high definition recordings would have had the same impact that the old 8mm films did. I tend to dislike modern technology being used in horror movies. Some movies utilize it well, but most don't. It's always "no signal on the mobile phone" or something cliched like that, and even though Sinister was set in the present, very little modern technology was used. When it was used, it was used well. The recordings of the 8mm films, printing pictures and the webchat with a professor of the occult, but for the most part, it felt like an old fashioned horror movie that wasn't trying to be contempory or modern. I liked that. The aesthetics looked old, the house, the clothes, even the glasses Ellison was wearing looked like something your grandparents would wear. I appreciated the effort to give Sinister a mostly "old school" vibe.
I also liked the layered characterization of Ellison, he was given more brutal honesty than all of the other characters received combined. We see the moral truth of Ellison unfold as he's watching old video tapes of his interviews when he was somewhat of a celebrity, and even he scoffs when he talks about doing it for "justice". The ugly truth is, it was only ever fulfillling his desire to become a celebrity and to feed his ego. This was also made abundantly clear when his wife found out what he had done. Now Ellison wasn't all bad, but he was a hypocrite, and he knew it too. Another in a long line of underrated performances from Ethan Hawke. The other character who was more developed than usual was the deputy "So-and-So" (James Ransone) who, in his limited sreentime flew above many of the tropes of law enforcement officials in other horror movies.
The scares in Sinister were more chilling and haunting, the kind that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I had hoped that the movie was going to be more restrained when it came to the loathed "jump scares" that pollute most modern horror movies, but even Sinister started using them halfway through, albeit more tastefully done than most others. All except the ending scene, I would have cut that out and shown more of the mass violence at the end. I would have dialed back on Bughuul quite a bit in the latter half as well. I think he/it was more effective as some sort of spectral entity than he/it was as a real flesh and blood being. I do feel like Sinister started out extremely stong and engrossing, but lost its way a little bit towards the end. Still a highly overlooked horror movie in the face other much more derivative, but much more acclaimed horror movies like The Conjuring. I know there's a Sinister 2 out there now too, but I'm in no rush to see it. I feel like Sinister wrapped everything up nicely. What else can they do but Sinister 2.0? I just feel like it would demystify the mythology too much, which was one of Sinister's major strengths. That sense of piecing the mysterious puzzle together like a supernatural procedural that became a man's white whale.
Written by - The Sentry - 01/12/2016