Published Oct 11, 2012While often as unsettling as its moniker suggests, Sinister may have been more disturbing still were its supernatural elements not made so explicit. Ticket sales come more readily when there's an obvious hook to hang terror on though, and questioning the influence of an obsessive work ethic on one's sanity lacks titillation, even when the subject of obsession is a series of freaky killings involving bizarre pagan rituals.
The result plays like a mix of 8mm and The Ring: a murder investigation stemming from creepy old video footage (in this case, Super 8) gradually morphs into a supernatural parable about the dangers of worshiping images. All of the spooky malevolent entity bits are assembled with a degree of stylistic confidence (including a disquieting and varied use of sound) that creates a sense of unwavering menace, but how effectively director Scott Derrickson uses genuine family drama early on to subvert stolid genre tropes makes it a bit disappointing when Sinister turns into a fairly typical, yet still refreshingly uncompromising horror film.
A true crime writer on the last fumes of fame, Ellison (Ethan Hawke, who has a rather discerning eye for scripts) moves his family into the house where the subjects of his new novel were hanged in the backyard, with the exception of one child, who's still missing. Supporting her impulse to ostrich-head, Ellison doesn't share this information with his wife and tries to keep his kids from finding out too much about his work. Searching for patterns in gruesome occult murders is rough on a youngster's REM cycle, after all.
The locals react to Ellison's work with a mix of trepidation, excitement and near-malice, with the extremes demonstrated by a contemptuous Sheriff, who fulfills the harbinger of doom role with a grudging courteous that's at odds with his demeanour, and a super-fan Deputy (James Ransome, showing great comic timing) who wants to be the writer's "go-to" guy on the local police force.
Uncommonly sensible characters caught up in authentic human drama because one man's need for validation happens to take the form of a compulsive desire to solve unexplained acts of horror is what sets Sinister apart from scores of less successful fare mining a similar patch of the willies.
Conceding a need for tenuously connected mystical shock-value at the expense of dramatic catharsis is what prevents it from standing out further from the herd. (Alliance)