A true crime writer with a waning literary reputation moves his family into the home where a brutal murder occurred. The previous tenants are the subject of his next book. After discovering a box marked "home movies" in the otherwise empty attic, the writer is pulled into what could be the oddest murder mystery in American history. Sinister has one of the tightest screenplays in recent horror history. C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson have crafted a beautiful and disturbing tale of terror built on the tired remains of the found footage genre. The story is put into motion by the discovery of Super 8 footage of murders. The tapes themselves are not the source of suspense; the present story is.
Ethan Hawke is captivating as the true crime writer Ellison. His family is put in danger, but he has all the heavy lifting. Sinister avoids the pitfalls of building a film around a writer writing, aka the most boring subject to watch in the world, by having a lead performer as talented as Hawke. The slew of writer cliches thrown at him--alcoholic, socially inept, obsessed with work, willing to do anything for a story--feel real because Hawke beats them into submission. His performance is larger than life but not caricature.
Indeed, when you're putting the weight of a supernatural suspense story on one character, that character needs to be as large and engaging as the villain is dangerous and overwhelming. Ellison is the psychological match for the brutal terror of the murder footage and the secrets that emerge from it. His method of researching and plotting out the true crime story is just as unnerving as the murders. It's a dark game of obsession that actually steals the spotlight from the paranormal promo angle of the film.
Sinister suffers from a huge flaw that stops the film from being as adventurous as it should be. Scott Derrickson, as a director, does not trust his screenplay enough to best deliver the scares. There is an effort to write off a very lazy device as character development, but the true intention is clear.
Whenever Ellison is forced to investigate his new house at night, he doesn't turn any lights on. Maybe he'll use a cellphone or a flashlight for guidance. Most of the time, he navigates blind. This results in huge, well-choreographed scare sequences being completely cast in darkness. If you can't see what is happening, you can't fully invest in horror. The result is an over reliance on jump scares when the screenplay actually fights against that level of sensationalism in the present storyline.
With a little more light on the screen and a more confident director, Sinister could have been a horror masterpiece. Instead, it's a clever seat jumper that undercuts its own strength with needless horror cliches. A film with a story this inventive does not need to scream "boo" and jump out of the shadows.
You have to be consistent when you're rating films, otherwise, there's no point in assigning a score. Sinister is in the same category as an Albert Nobbs. The potential was there to be brilliant. The result is still very enjoyable. It just has a few too many missteps to really come together as something great.
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