There’s a moment in Sinister, maybe about halfway through, where the ending is clearly telegraphed to any viewer paying even the base level of attention. In fact, much of the movie is predictable due to the heavy use of typical misdirection tactics and other familiar horror movie staples. Yet the moments that do work allow Sinister to move past those shortcomings to become one of the better horror movies released over the past few years.
The opening of the film sets the tone right away with a disturbing image: Four people, two of them children, stand hooded underneath a large tree, hands bound behind their back and ropes noosed around their necks. The ropes are tied to one of the tree’s larger branches, and the branch starts giving way, slowly hoisting the four into the air, their feet kicking away in the open space. It’s a hell of an opening and effectively sets the stage for things to come.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer trying to regain the 15 minutes of fame he’d scored a decade or so before with a best-selling book. The film opens with him and his family moving into a new house which, wouldn’t you know it, is the scene of the crime we’ve just witnessed. Things really get weird once Ellison finds a box full of Super 8 film cans and accompanying projector in the attic. The reels depict various families bound and gagged … and eventually being killed all sorts of inventive and cruel ways. The discovery sparks Ellison’s plans for a new project, a true-crime book for the ages, something to focus on that would put him and the rest of the clan on easy street. Things get complicated though once weird occurrences start happening inside the house that Ellison connects to the murdered families. To say any more than that would spoil the movie.
The movie is cloaked in a palpable atmosphere of dread for its entire run time and features some standout scare moments. The Super 8 films that show the families being killed found-footage-style are themselves frightful stuff, with one in particular providing the biggest jolt of the entire movie. The low quality of the footage coupled with the eerie soundtrack place the films-within-the-film one step away from snuff, especially as more details are revealed as Ellison obsessively pores over every frame.
Hawke carries the movie with his portrayal of Ellison, a character likable enough that you can sympathize with him, even when he keeps his family in the house well past the point of common sense. The movie eventually falls into that familiar pit where you have to wonder out loud just what it’s going to take for this guy to pack his wife and kids into the car Poltergeist-style and head for the nearest motel. (Of course, you can just as easily question why Ellison moved his family into a house that was the scene of heinous multiple murders, while effectively keeping them in the dark about it, to begin with.)
Co-writer and director Scott Derrickson keeps things rolling along, even amidst the more predictable moments, providing ample chills and enough questions to keep one interested in the overall story arc (even once you’ve figured out where it’s headed). Some of the dialogue is groan-worthy, but the acting is solid on all counts, with James Ransone (The Wire) providing the comic relief as a local podunk deputy eager to be credited in Ellison’s new book. Ultimately, Derrickson delivers a film that will likely leave you feeling at least a little disturbed, especially if you’ve got kids of your own.