I talk a lot about "found footage" movies here at FMWL, but this time the movie I'm talking about goes a step further. That film is Sinister, which is literally a found footage film - a film about a dude who finds some home movies that contain all he needs for a horror film to break out around him.
Ethan Hawke stars as a writer of non-fiction crime novels, ten years removed from the death row expose that brought him fame and fortune. He's married now, with two children, but he's still chasing his next big story - which leads him to moving his family into a murder house. It's a unique murder house in the sense that we are shown what happened - and said happening appears to be the act of an invisible force.
Like any good horror character with a knack for research, this father quickly becomes obsessed with the case thanks to a box of short Super 8 films that show him what we've seen and a series of other murders that fit the same pattern. In less than a week's time in the murder house, things go terribly wrong and demonic forces come out to play.
The plot has more twists and turns than I expected, which leads Sinister to some rather bizarre places. Hawke's character starts to ask plenty of the questions we're asking - things like "Who made the tapes?" and "What in the name of the Blair Witch is going on here?*" - but the film takes its time with the answers and toys with the viewer for as long as it can. There were moments when I got stuck in the same "rational outside observer" trap that non-horror fans often slip into - I kept thinking things like "Why doesn't anyone turn on the lights?" and "Where does a demon get his claws on all this Super 8 film in 2012?" - because Sinister takes such a mischievous approach to its story. Most of the plot points come together in the end - for better or worse - but the film keeps the viewer in the dark (no pun intended, even though no one in the movie EVER uses a light switch to illuminate their setting) to the reasons why until much later than I expected. (In fact, one of the film's biggest reveals, which appears in some of the trailers for the film, actually only comes out in the final 10 minutes of the film.)
(* - The flick may not actually reference Blair Witch, but I get the feeling that one of the writers may have offered a sacrifice to what is basically the Lord and Creator of all found footage related horror films of this millennium.)
Though many of Sinister's scare sequences seem like random parts of an unhinged story, there's never a dull moment in the film. Director Scott Derrickson - who impressed me with The Exorcism of Emily Rose once upon a time - refuses to use much light in the film and keeps the sound loud to get maximum unease from the viewer. Much like the Paranormal Activity films, I felt like there were some times when the effect the film had on me was the result of physical stimulation - loud noises, squinting to make out shapes in the dark, etc. - than mental involvement. There are probably too many scenes that end with Hawke wandering around, looking confused, and stumbling into a big shrill scare - but at the same time, many of these scenes end up working really well.
It's also worth noting that the demon which is introduced is intimidating and spooky, which does a lot for the film. The footage from the films that we see throughout Sinister is incredibly well done, and the slow reveal of the force behind it all is handled wonderfully. These sequences are definitely the film's greatest successes. In fact, they're so good that some of the other attempts to scare seem unnecessary in comparison. It's kind of like the footage/demon parts are the good movie, and the other scares with insects and snakes and ghosts and what not are the dumb things people add to the good movie's bad sequel. (Did, I just turn another complement toward the movie into a backhanded insult? Yeah, I think I did.)
There's a definite style over substance thing going on for Sinister, and those who will get caught up in the plot's contrived turns - like I obviously have at times - may lose their patience for Derrickson's film. I'm still a little undecided as to how much I really liked Sinister on the whole, but at the same time it feels like the type of horror movie I'd throw on with some friends just to watch everyone squirm and shout. That's worth something, I think, so I'd say Sinister is definitely an addition to the horror genre that's worth seeking out. It's got a lot of great things going on, and I've got a good feeling that it's the kind of horror film I'll go back to over time.