A family stand under a tree in their garden, bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. Out of shot, another branch of the tree is sawn off, causing the family to be hoisted up and hung from the tree. In grainy, celluloid footage, it’s an extreme and unsettling opening that sets the scene for Sinister, a startling and atmospheric horror from The Exorcism of Emily Rose helmer Scott Derrickson.
The family in the footage were murdered at their home where true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has just moved his young family. Ellison sees this family’s murder and the disappearance of their youngest daughter as his big chance to recapture the fame and success that has eluded him since his big break almost 20 years ago.
On the day the Oswalt family moves in, Ellison finds a box of Super 8 movies in the attic labelled ‘home movies’ with innocuous tittles like ‘sleepy time’, ‘barbecue’ and yep, ‘family hanging out’. Each one of the films depicts a brutal, first-person murder of a family in a variety of ways, shot with chilling banality. Ellison combs over the films every night with the aid of a bottle of scotch and pretty soon, things start going bump in the night. Is a spooked and sizzled Ellison imagining these things? Is the killer coming back to torment his family? Or is it something paranormal?
These questions run throughout the film and don’t become clear until the film’s third act, leading to a bold and gruesome gut punch ending. What happens in-between is a genuinely frightening film. Derrickson employs a wide range of old-school horror tropes from found footage, false alarms and spooky children, combined with jarring sounds and graphic imagery it all adds up to an intense and ultimately satisfying horror experience.
It may not be particularly original, with its Amityville and Ringu influences apparent from the off, but Sinister pulls it altogether into an interesting and unnerving boo-flick that doesn’t shy away from its horrifying imagery but also doesn’t rely on graphic violence either.
It isn’t a perfect film however, raising a few questions that can’t really be answered sensibly. Though Ellison enlists star-struck crime fanatic deputy (James Ransone) to help him with certain information, why doesn’t he just report everything he knows to the police? We know from some exposition that he’s been burned before with his theories on a crime but with evidence so compelling, surely anyone would hand it over?
Fortunately these slight issues are easily forgotten thanks to the haunting atmosphere that Derrickson creates along with cinematographer Chris Norr and the effective performances from the cast. Ethan Hawke is dependably solid, bringing a depth and realism to his character rarely seen in a horror film. Elsewhere, James Ransone, most well known as The Wire’s Ziggy, gives a brilliantly awkward performance and Vincent D’Onofrio pops up via webcam as an occult professor.
Good movies in this genre are few and far between, particularly in a time of pointless bloodletting and endless found footage movies, but Sinister uses the genre standards well and grounds the story with solid characters. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with real scares and horrifying imagery that resonates well beyond the end credits.