True crime novelist Ellison Osbourne (Ethan Hawke) has made a career out of writing about missing children and is trying to recreate the success of his first book. He decides to move his family to the site of a grisly murder that saw four members of a family hanged from a tree. During the move he discovers a box in the attic which houses a series of super 8 reels of film and a projector. He begins watching and they recount the last days of a number of families followed by footage of them being murdered in a variety of ways. While rewatching them he notices a strange figure present in each film and as Sinister things start to happen Ellison begins questioning his sanity.
Sinister is an attempt to combine the found footage elements of Paranormal Activity with the grim murders of Saw and the jump-scare tactics of Insidious. On the whole it works rather impressively, unfortunately it does suffer from elements of confusion and the heavy-handed direction is both obvious and extremely predictable. As with most horrors of this type it’s far more effective at scaring the audience when they know little about what’s causing all the trouble. Much like Jeepers Creepers it is when the supernatural elements come rushing in Sinister loses its edge.
The scares are predictable with a long violin note playing for a few minutes followed by an incredibly loud noise and they work in the early stages to set the tension levels. Sadly one of the earliest scares is so effective that each one after that is less impacting and by the end of Sinister you’ll be exhausted and tired of the cheap scare tactics employed.
Ethan Hawke is excellent as you’d imagine and he brings some believability to the more clunky lines of dialogue. But Sinister is at it’s most effective when he is watching the Super 8 films. His character struggles with the potential truth that he’s put his family in jeopardy but refuses to remove them from the situation because this might be the story to bring his fame back. It is this level of character insight that helps keep Sinister in the more impressive bracket of horror films, plus there’s an excellent cameo for Vincent D’Onofrio as the conventiently placed, exposition-spouting Professor Jonas.
Sinister is not an out-and-out horror though, and gamefully plays with the preposterousness of the situation with some wonderfully comic moments. This is where Insidious was let down in the most as it took itself too seriously, a problem that Sinister definitely does not share. One of the highlights in fact comes in an exchange between Ellison and the local cop helping him, where he reveals that he hasn’t yet told his wife that their living in a ˜murder house.’ The wonderfully named Deputy So-and-So simply retorts I don’t want to be around for that conversation. It’s a playful edge that other horrors tend to miss and it’s a welcome break from all the loud bangs and creaks.
Sinister‘s scares then are obvious and cheap with a combination of sudden movement and ear-piearcing sounds doing most of the legwork. Yet cheap or not there can be no doubt that they’re effective and while it won’t stay with you for days after like the more atmospheric horrors, it is very good at offering a cheap thrill.