Sinister (2012) / Horror-Mystery

MPAA rated: R for disturbing violent images and some terror
Length: 110 min.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, James Ransone, Michael Hall D'Addario, Fred Dalton Thompson, Vincent D'Onofrio
Small role: Tavis Smiley
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Review published January 31, 2013

Sinister 2012 Ethan HawkeEthan Hawke (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Hottest State) plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime author who once had an acclaimed best-seller a decade ago with a smash hit book called, "Kentucky Blood", but who has languished with duds ever since. He packs up his things and moves his wife (Rylance, Animal), night terror-suffering son (D'Addario, People Like Us), and blossoming artist daughter (Foley, Win Win) to a new house to look for grisly clues for what will become his comeback novel, but doesn't tell them that the horrific murders he is investigating happened in the very home they are now residing in.

Upon setting things in the attic of the new home, Ellison discovers a box of home movies and a projector with such titles as "Family hanging around", and "BBQ", with each short Super-8 film showcasing the family at play, juxtaposed with the terrifying snuff film scene of their murders (hanging from a tree and being burned alive to use these two examples). He impulsively seeks to go to the authorities, but this could be the ticket to newfound fame and fortune for his next book, so he decides to bear down and dig deeper. Unfortunately, the closer he gets, the more he drinks, the worse his kids get, and the more terrified his wife becomes.

Sinister is directed by Scott Derrickson, who has experience delivering creep-fests as evidenced in his sci-fi flick The Day the Earth Stood Still and the horrific The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Derrickson's knack for a suspenseful build-up is quite good, as is the acting of Hawke, who must work alone much of the time with nothing but his facial expressions to guide us. Staples such as creaky floorboards, darkened corridors, creatures in the attic, bumps in the night, and eerie coincidences keeps the hair standing on end, much as it did in Paranormal Activity -- not a coincidence that the films share the same producer. The haunting, electronic score by Christopher Young (Untraceable, Spider-Man 3) also ratchets up the tension superbly, in synergy with some very nice work by cinematographer Chris Norr (What Doesn't Kill You, Little New York).

The struggling author and his suffering family echoes such films as The Shining, and though much of what Sinister has to offer has been given to us before, there is a slickness and confidence to the first hour that would suggest that things could build up to become one of the better horror flicks of the year. As Ellison comes closer to unlocking the clues within each film, the more intense the dread becomes.

Unfortunately, Derrickson increases the traditional fright-flick gimmickry along with the revelations.  The film does begin to lose some of its intrigue once a bit of supernatural developments begin to take place. Not that this could have been avoided, given the nature of the killings and resurfacing of the home movies, but given the whisky-infused nature of Ellison's evenings, it would have been a far better decision to keep the sources of the disturbances ambiguous until absolutely necessary, especially as it would have been plausible that much of what is actually going on could be in the mind of an overstimulated alcoholic desperate for a big story.

Quiet and methodical storytelling soon makes way for overused jump-scares, until Sinister, which started with such promise, eventually becomes indistinguishable from dozens of other movies featuring hauntings of the past taking root in the present, and the finale rolls out with consummate predictability.  Until it begins to creak under the weight of genre clichés, Sinister is effective, hair-raising stuff, and ultimately garners a recommendation for horror-lovers who value atmosphere over shocks every two minutes in order to be entertained. The resolution to the mystery may give you a bit of a silly hangover when it's all over, but while it's on, Derrickson and Hawke dish out the chilling tension you're likely looking to find.
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo