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Sinister Is Deliciously Frightening, Despite Many Flaws

Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Summit, 2012

Sinister is the best horror movie to come out in ages, and considering it follows the overused “family moves to another house” scenario that we’ve seen a million times just this year, it’s an amazing feat.  It comes from The Exorcism of Emily Rose and…uh, yeah…The Day the Earth Stood Still remaker Scott Derrickson.  At least The Exorcism of Emily Rose was good I guess.  This is way better, despite numerous times looking at the screen, I wondered why characters were doing the things they were doing.  It didn’t detract from the fact that this movie sets a very certain mood and succeeds.

Sinister is about true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), who moves into a new town with his family, including his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), their son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley).  Oswalt has achieved fame with a book he wrote long ago called Kentucky Blood, but has now fallen on hard times.  He hopes to regain fame and fortune by writing about the mystery of a family murder that happened in the very backyard of the house into which they’ve moved.  Of course, he hasn’t told his family that it’s the same house.  Also, as famous as Oswalt is, his snooping usually alienates the town in which they live, and the new surroundings are cause for strain in the household, as is the usual.

Ellison is immediately given a stern talking-to by the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson), who thinks his new residence is in poor taste.  Whatever, Ellison is ready to dive into the mystery, and immediately stumbles on a box of 8mm films in the attic, films which begin with a nice, happy family enjoying their time together and then quick-cutting to their horrible, awful demise (In some ways, this movie takes from the classic 1966 Michaelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up, in which a photographer takes pictures of a place he isn’t aware is a crime scene, but then finds clues as he examines further.

Not long after the discovery, Ellison begins heavy drinking, and strange things start happening in and around the house, including his son Trevor’s night terrors, which at his age he shouldn’t be having.  An eager deputy (James Ransone) helps Ellison find information about the families in the films he’s watched.  The strange things get more intense.

There are a number of flaws.  Many times after a night of terror, you wonder if anyone in the house ever hears Ellison walking and crashing about.  Ellison never seems to go and check on his family after such terrible nights.  And the ending of this film could have been much less on-the-nose.  But you know what?  Who cares?  The 8mm films, which prove that grainy, unpolished film stock makes horror way better than the slickly-produced, take-you-out-of-it, super-polished horror, and those films put you in the mood.  It’s an awful feeling, and you begin to search everywhere in the frame for ghosts.

Oh sure, there are many, many jump scares, some of them cheap…but in this, jump scares work, mainly due to the incredible job done by the eerie 8mm films.  Most of these are not random, well, we-need-a-scare jump scares.  There is one in particular that is just…ridiculously evil.  There is stuff in here that will have audiences buzzing well after the movie is over, which bodes well for its chances to be a huge hit.  In fact, much like the original Paranormal Activity was a huge Saw-killer, Sinister may well prove to be a huge Paranormal Activity-killer.  Considering that series is on its 4th chapter, and you could feel franchise fatigue in the last one and the previews for this one haven’t really excited many, Sinister might still be the choice next week when Paranormal Activity 4 arrives.

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