Silver Screen: Sinister ***1/2
There's not much from the ad campaign or one-sentence synopsis of Sinister to separate it from the other indistinguishable low-budget studio horror movies of 2012— House at the End of the Street, The Possession, Silent House, et cetera. A lone star (Ethan Hawke) fronting a cheap haunted-house movie with a vague title and generically eerie poster doesn't conjure up much confidence. But while it's not exactly a classic, Sinister turns out to be a surprisingly nasty and enjoyable Halloween treat.
Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a fame-hungry writer reduced from penning literary fiction to sordid true-crime tales. He's near being demoted to cranking out textbooks when he happens upon a scheme he thinks will return him to the spotlight: Buy a house where an entire family was murdered, then move his family in while he writes the story. The macabre plan seems to work out even better when he discovers a box of leftover home movies, perfect fodder for the new book. But when Ellison fires up the old super-eight projector and watches the tapes, he finds something far more shocking: It's footage of the family shot in secret by some unknown figure, and the final frames capture their murder.
The grainy film of the family's killing, removed from context, is Sinister's first scene, and it's a startling one. The family, unidentifiable with bags over their heads, all stand in a line beneath a tree with nooses around their necks. The ropes are wound over another limb to form a pulley; just offscreen, someone is sawing at the limb. When it falls, the ropes pull taught and the entire family is hoisted, kicking and writhing, into the air.
It's a haunting image, not gory but certainly explicit. Director and cowriter Scott Derrickson crafts several more of these, which are showcased as Ellison runs through the rest of the home movies. Each one shows a different family being secretly filmed, then bound and gagged before being simultaneously murdered. The movies are otherwise unlabeled except for dates, which place the earliest one occurring in the 1960s.
For the craven Ellison, the footage is a boon. But as he searches it for details to flesh out what he's certain will be his bestseller, he begins to find clues that suggest his own family may be in danger.
Sinister is perhaps a little overstuffed and hysterical, certainly in the final act, which droops the atmosphere and shadows in favor of more overt scares, but it's a well-crafted horror movie that works on numerous levels. Derrickson throws in a little of everything, from creeping psychological terror to supernatural specters and a dash of slasher gore, but he balances the elements nicely. It's both conceptually and viscerally frightening. Derrickson isn't gunshy about using shock sound cues and characters bursting startlingly into frame, but the cheap scares offer thrills that only supplement the consistent, mounting dread. A nice supporting performance from James Ransone (The Wire, Generation Kill) adds just enough comic relief to keep the experience from becoming a grim slog.
In Sinister, Derrickson also finds a nice fusion of modern found-footage horror and classic haunted-house tales. Ellison might as well be watching snippets of security-camera tape from Paranormal Activity. And we, who will be going next week to see Paranormal Activity IV, are not only watching ourselves watching the footage, we watch that footage start to watch us. Spooky, and nicely done.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.