In this sort of anti-found footage film from director Scott Derrickson, "Sinister", a movie I would refer to as more of a thriller than an actual horror because of the limited genre based scares it contains, surprisingly does contain such a high level of suspense throughout its eerie premise, that in the end, even though it does have one major flaw, it turns out to be the scariest movie of the year so far (by far).
The Plot: "The Shinning" inspired premise involves a writer of true crime novels by the name of Ellison Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) who, in order to gather information for his new book, moves his wife and two children into a house where a family was brutally murdered; without his families prior knowledge of course. You see, it's been ten years since Ellison's last big hit and with his financial situation and marriage both on the rocks, this plot point is seen as his final desperate attempt to write a lucrative novel. While moving in, he finds a series of Super 8 films, he suspects to be home movies, in the attic, and begins watching them as part of his investigation. What he soon discovers is that these films not only document the murder of the family whose house he now resides in, but also the grisly murders (each more gruesome than the last) of three more unknown families. As the days continue, he proceeds to watch each of these films, looking for clues. But what he finds is much more alarming, when during one viewing he discovers that a man (or monster) has been standing in the background of each one of the films, the entire time.
Why this thriller for the most part works so well is quite simple. First of all, Derrickson's direction, aside from a few inevitable hiccups (which I will touch on later) creates an undeniably suspenseful atmosphere, which slowly escalates throughout the entire film. I don't know about you, but that is exactly what I want out of a good horror flick. And aside from the obvious visuals of the all too disturbing killings, Derrickson's use of hand held camera movement and a good amount of visually haunting shots elevates what could have been a true disaster of a film, into one that is a mixture of an intriguing psychological thriller and spooky campfire tale. And if you think I'm giving Derrickson too high of visual praise here, I will end with this: "Sinister" is not only the most beautifully shot horror film in recent years, but also makes a compelling case for a best director nomination (which will never happen).
The second reason "Sinister" works so well lies in how high the screenplay writer (in this case Scott Derrickson) has upped the hero's stakes. Aside from a movie visually not being scary enough, distractingly obnoxious or unlikeable characters are usually the downfalls of any horror film. For example: Every movie in the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchise, or a movie where you are rooting for the deformed bad-guy to chop up the beautiful teenagers. That's why I believe that the protagonists motive in "Sinister", a struggling artist who will stop at nothing to boost his career (much like Ethan Hawke) is so believable/compelling, as well as contains a fair amount of pathos, that any plot holes, over-the-top supernatural visuals or accounts of bad acting will most likely be immediately forgiven, if not outright ignored by a larger majority of theater going audiences.
As I had made mention to prior, "Sinister" is unfortunately held back from being a great horror because of one major flaw. A flaw I'd like to refer to as "the child-element." This is the case with many horror films, when the story revolves around children or in the case of "Sinister" children play an intricate role in the reveal, the entire movie has the strong potential of visually becoming quite goofy. There are two instances which implement, for lack of a better phrase, ghost children. These two sequences are undeniably silly and in turn are too great to be ignored, instantly taking the viewer out of the film experience. Now, that is not to say that because the story is so good that one of these scenes can't be quickly forgotten. It's just a shame that the other sequence in question makes up (semi-spoiler alert) the final 3 minutes of the film, absolutely ruining Sinister's ending. In short, for 80 or so minutes this is a damn near perfect thriller, but in the latter half, when this film focuses more and more on the man/monster, the movie itself becomes more susceptible to the visually laughable/supernatural ghost children moments in question.
Spoiler Alert/Side Note/Final Thought: I am what you would call a self proclaimed film geek. So amidst watching "Sinister", a film that is so heavily structured around watching Super 8 films and "things" that live in film strips, I couldn't help but look for a deeper geek-like meaning. Warning: I may be ruining a plot development amidst my explanation, so if you haven't seen "Sinister", don't read this paragraph. OK, so in the film our protagonist (Ellison, which sounds like Edison) finds a box of Super 8's, plays them on an old projector and sees the man in the background of each of the films. Because of circumstances surrounding old technology he transfers the footage onto his computer, resulting in the creation of a digital copy. There comes a time further on in the story where circumstances force Ellison to destroy the film footage. And while he successfully does so with his computer copies, upon his attempt in destroying the original film strips, he finds them to be seemingly indestructible. To me, this reads as a quite interesting statement, that while we are currently living through the extinction of movies being shot on film, "Sinister" almost winks at the audiences, as if to say, "even though digital is our future, film will never die." If you agree with my geekology or think that I am over thinking it and need to get a life, Tweet me @moviesmarkus and share your thoughts.
Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland