Before it becomes a spine-tingling and bone-chilling horror, Sinister dabbles in drama and comedy, making the terrors all the more disturbing and the film far more believable and satisfying.
Ellison Oswalt (a great Ethan Hawke – welcome back!) is a once famous and now struggling true-crime writer, looking for inspiration and success as he moves into a house of a recently murdered family. While he doesn’t tell his wife exactly where the trouble in town took place—a chilling opening scenes shows the familial foursome hung from a tree in the backyard—Oswalt is a refreshingly different type of figure seen in horror films. He is comfortable delving into the terrifying, purposefully seeking out the macabre while playing a caring and devoted, albeit misguided, husband and father.
It’s a good thing too, because was he anyone else, say the helpful town deputy, his wife, or likely anyone in the audience, at the first sign off something strange, he would have hightailed it out of there, if they had even moved in at all-and then there would be no movie, and that would be a damn shame.
The film runs initially parallel to the likes of The Ring, creepy while curious, as Ellison investigates a serious of bizarre and bloody family murders across time and space, somehow all captured by someone sinister on super 8. As the audience we are forced to watch them all, but at least when Ellison does, he has the comfort of a bottle of whiskey.
Ellison, and thankfully every other character, is neither a horror stereotype nor one-dimensional, and though the film does everything well, including humour, it unfortunately doesn’t feel new. There is the old and grizzled (not unlike actor Fred Thompson who plays him), creepy children, erratic electricity, oddball paranormal expert, and things hiding just out of sight, and they are all perfectly fit into the story, they just aren’t particularly surprising.
There is also the familiar character of the curious and awe-struck deputy, offering some lightness to the film with his social ineptitude, but never detracting from the story. He eagerly helps his new resident, and offers one of a pair of hilarious lines in the film (the other by Ellison, pleading with his wife) when he explains what he would do if he lived in a perhaps haunted house.
The third act, full of fright and revelation, keeps you on the edge of your seat but neither hits a marked twist nor does it fall too short, as you continue into a dark descent alongside Ellison. It is smart, logical, and frightening, but perhaps balancing out realism with the supernatural ultimately destines a film to be near-great while lacking something.
It is as advertised, indeed the scariest film of the year so far, but that bar hasn’t been set particularly high. You have in it great actors, and a protagonist with whom you root on, and very well-executed scares. Ellison was right when he took to this ominous house: there is something dark at work waiting to be uncovered, and for us, it is worth the move.