Although the found footage format is hardly new, dating all the way back to 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust,” the success of the “Paranormal Activity” series has ushered in its ubiquity in the horror genre. Most of the time, a movie’s use of this now tired style is a signal that the filmmakers don’t have anything original to say and aim to use found footage as a gimmick to distract the viewer from such (“The Devil Inside” is the most egregious recent example of this). But not Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister,” a disturbing and frightening movie that is unafraid to bring teeth back to Horror with a narrative that cleverly intermixes found footage and traditional storytelling.
In “Sinister,” Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a once famous true-crime author who is writing his latest story about a quadruple homicide that took place in the backyard of his family’s new home. After discovering a box of Super 8 snuff films containing that and other brutal killings, Ellison becomes obsessed with deciphering the connection between the murders. In doing so, he crosses paths with an enigmatic and relentless supernatural force that begins to torment him and his family.
One of the main reasons that “Sinister” succeeds is because it develops the protagonist as an actual human being, not just a horror movie chess-piece, making the terrors of the film seem that much more real. Ellison is the consummate obsessive novelist: his office is cluttered with stacks of boxes and research material, and when he writes, he does so hunched over his desk, late into the night, sipping coffee or whiskey. Hawke delicately captures this persona, as well as Ellison’s familial interactions (the interplay with his young daughter is especially believable). One might not expect to see such quality acting in a horror film, but Hawke’s “Sinister” performance is easily the best he has delivered since “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” sacrificing his usual vanity and smug demeanor in favor of a convincing portrait of a man on the edge.
That said, “Sinister” is a horror movie, not a character study — and it’s a very well executed one at that. Derrickson employs a rather reserved aesthetic approach in order to make the film’s style enhance its story, not the other way around. The director and cinematographer Chris Norr mostly utilize lighting and shadows in order to create a pervading sense of dread, rather than more elaborate visual tricks. Also, as the film progresses, the camera increasingly tilts toward the ceiling, connecting the viewer to Ellison’s feeling of claustrophobia in his house. The editing never strays into the oppressively kinetic territory of postmodern horror films like the “Saw” franchise, instead favoring longer takes that ratchet up the suspense. Also worth noting is that the found footage-style snuff films are horrifying in terms of the intimacy of their brutality; while it never becomes exploitative, “Sinister” confronts the darkness of its story head-on.
The film is, as one would expect, plagued by the usual logical deficiencies of its genre. “Sinister” conforms to horror tropes in the way that its protagonist makes questionable decisions that may leave certain viewers scratching their heads in disbelief. Hawke sells his character’s obsessive personality traits well, but Ellison’s choice to not tell his wife about their home’s horrendous history because of his own writerly fascination, putting their lives in danger, will undoubtedly strike cynical viewers as improbable. That said, when a horror film is as well-done as “Sinister,” it’s best to check one’s cynicism at the door and enjoy the thrills it has to offer.
That “Sinister” is legitimately scary is a feat in and of itself. Further, the movie should serve as a lesson to budding horror filmmakers that Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill achieve the scares without succumbing to torture porn-like gore. But “Sinister” is still mighty disturbing: the viewer constantly feels uneasy, as if the film’s façade could crack at any moment — and it does. Not since 2007’s “The Descent” has a horror movie effectively cultivated such an atmosphere, and “Sinister” does so without even leaving the house. You won’t want to, either, after seeing the film.