Moving house is a stressful ordeal, even at the best of times. A forced relocation due to money troubles with two young children in tow where the husband is keeping secrets from the family is recipe enough for trouble, but when that secret relates to the murder of four of the previous occupants of the new house, the fifth body never having been found, one would almost imagine it were the setup for a horror film.
Ethan Hawke is true crime author Ellison Oswalt, a decade on from the breakthrough that thrust him into the limelight and struggling for a hit, and unbeknownst to his family he has moved them into the scene of an unsolved crime in hopes the atmosphere will inspire him. Exploring the house, he finds a box of Super 8 films and a projector in the loft space, a box that did not appear in the crime scene photos. The reels sound innocuous – from Pool Party ’66 through BBQ ’79 and Sleepy Time ’98 to Family Hanging Out ’11 – but the footage is in fact each of a different family, first at play, then being killed.
Sinister is directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written by C Robert Cargill and Derrickson, no stranger to horror, having previously directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and a very different kind of horror, more likely unintentional, his blindingly incompetent and misconceived remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a miscast monstrosity that misunderstood that the classic original was a call for peace rather than a glorification of explosions. A few exceptions aside, Sinister is an improvement on either of these.
Early scenes are rushed, each line of dialogue a flurry of exposition, so much that the characters are never allowed to breathe, only conversing to draw attention to pertinent facts, though it is to be appreciated that the film actually has a story. The mechanics of plot are important, but the key of horror is to care about the people involved, and by choosing to cater for an audience with a short attention span, Derrickson has to work hard to claw back the lost ground.
Fortunately he achieves this with a riddle to be pieced together from clues within the footage, the film becoming more confident as it goes along, the majority of shocks or violence confined to the projected images, for the most part avoiding jump scares, but the later ghostly visitations of the missing children is cheap and unnecessary, deflating the atmosphere that has been carefully built.
Hawke is a reliable and interesting actor, and the majority of his behaviour rings true, the significant exception being his plot necessitated failure to immediately call the police upon uncovering a wealth of significant new evidence in a series of murders. Even once he has taken digital copies of each, he fails to hand over the film cans for fingerprinting, harsh words from the local sheriff in the opening scenes being insufficient justification for this neglect of civic duty.
A less obtrusive oddity is the question of why all the footage, supposedly filmed over a period of more than forty years, is shot and edited in the same fashion as the main body of the film, the fragmented jump cuts styled after MTV, yet originating two decades earlier, and also why in the digital age, Super 8 is still the favoured format of the supernatural.
Influenced by Ringu, in the use of filmed images as a gateway, but also with aspects of Children of the Corn and The Shining, Sinister is a better film than the generic trailer would suggest, a more interesting and innovative take on the power of celluloid and voyeurism, the complicit horror of the YouTube generation, than the majority of found footage horrors that clog cinema screens.