A successful horror movie often gets graded on a bit of a curve these days. The genre is so chock full of terrible entries that anything above average gets a leg up and the benefit of the doubt. One thing a horror flick can always do to distinguish itself is to give a new or more effective spin on an old cliche. With ‘Sinister’, the chief asset that works in its favor is that it contributes one of the best uses of found footage in a flick in some time. Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and film critic turned screenwriter C. Robert Cargill do recycle a lot of tropes genre tropes, but when it comes to some of the twists as well as the found footage scenes, they’re doing very interesting and praiseworthy work. Ethan Hawke brings a little star power to the lead role and the scares are quite effective, so overall ‘Sinister’ has a surprisingly large amount to offer. It may not be on the level of something like ‘Insidious’ last year, but it’s definitely a very solid horror movie and well worth seeing. Derrickson and Cargill have teamed up with Hawke to unsettle and scare the crap out of you…in that regard they can pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
After an incredibly creepy opening shot, we meet Ellison Oswalt (Hawke). Ellison is a true-crime novelist in need of a hit. It’s been a decade since he broke through with a book that made headlines, leaving him today as pretty much a has been. As is his habit, he’s again moved his family to be near the site of the crime he’s writing about, though this time he’s unwisely chosen the exact house that was the site of a grisly family murder and isn’t welcome there, as the sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) tells him in no uncertain terms. In the attic he finds a box of Super 8 home movies, the origin of which is unknown. When he sits down to watch them, Ellison finds out that they’re actually recordings of not only the murder he’s investigating, but also similar ones as well, all recorded by the killer in a found footage sort of way. As Ellison investigates further, he starts to see and hear things in the house, causing his mind to slowly begin to crack and his alcohol consumption to increase. As his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) worries about him and pleads for Ellison to give up the new book, his children Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) begin to suffer as well. Ellison is determined to figure out what’s going on though, and enlists the help of a deputy (James Ransone) who’s a fan of his work. Before long though, Ellison will wish that he’d given up, as his discoveries have opened the door to a terrifying supernatural presence. There’s a lot of ‘The Shining’ to be found in this flick, and while it’s not nearly as good, it’s perhaps better than it has any right to be.
The acting is about what you’d expect from a horror movie, but everyone does their job and no one embarrasses themselves at all. Ethan Hawke effectively transitions from an overconfident and somewhat narcissistic man into an obsessive and paranoid one without devolving into complete histrionics. It’s not a particularly noteworthy performance, but Hawke is solid enough to anchor the production. Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley both get moments that are memorably freaky, though neither really do too much with their roles, while Juliet Rylance and James Ransome are more or less wasted. Fred Dalton Thompson is essentially cameoing here, as is Vincent D’Onofrio, and the rest of the small cast includes Nicholas King, Victoria Leigh, and Rob Riley. Hawke is the only standout in the cast, but don’t expect any attention for him here.
The directorial choices by Scott Derrickson are the best part of the movie for me. From the sound design to the effective use of scare tactics, he’s on the money for the most part. Of course, my absolute favorite aspect is how he interweaves the found footage scenes, which are actually shot on Super 8 film. We get plenty of looks at the films showing the murders, and they unsettle each and every single time. Other filmmakers might not have taken this route, but by doing so Derrickson not only shows how the sub genre can be used as an effective smaller part of a different film, but also a template for how to terrify with it in the future. Derrickson makes effective use of gore and oftentimes unsettles you most with what he chooses not to show. He’s certainly got a skill for horrific imagery. The screenplay he wrote with former Aint It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill is overall good, even if there are all the dumb decisions you expect from a movie like this. Cargill embraced some of the stereotypes, which is an interesting decision. It’s certainly nice to see one of my colleagues succeeding in a different aspect of the industry, that’s for sure. The script won’t win any awards, but I was impressed with the direction.
‘Sinister’ should have gone by its original working title of ‘Home Movies’, but even without that change it’s still a surprisingly good horror movie. It’s silly at times, but the tense atmosphere and terrific use of found footage more than make up for it. At least until ‘Paranormal Activity 4′ hits theaters, you can do a hell of a lot worse than ‘Sinister’. Ethan Hawke, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill have crafted a movie that definitely brings the terror…
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