Sinister (2012): B+
The crazy thing about watching so many horror movies is that after awhile, you forget why you started watching them in the first place. You watch for the death scenes, the gore; you hope for nudity. The fact that the whole premise of a horror flick is supposed to be, you know, scary, is usually an afterthought.
That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised with Sinister, which, despite having a semi-recognizable star (Ethan Hawke) in the lead role, went pretty under-the-radar in theaters. Yeah, it has all the usual tropes: creepy kids, late-night bumps in the night, “gotcha” moments driven by explosions of sound intended to make you jump.
This one works, though, because of a somewhat unique invention. It combines the best elements of linear, narrative storytelling along with some genuinely horrific found footage. Hawke’s a “true crime” writer who moves his family of four to a house where the previous family of four were all hung from a tree in the backyard. The murder was never solved, and Hawke thinks he’s caught a break when he finds a box of Super-8 reels, along with a functioning projector, in the attic.
Sure, there are all the usual genre plot holes. For instance, Hawke doesn’t tell his wife that the house’s last inhabitants met with a rather gruesome demise, and even though she knows what he does for a living, she doesn’t clue into this fact until their daughter starts drawing creepy pictures of the scene on the walls. It’s an excuse to have a big, dramatic domestic altercation and for the wife to be the voice of the audience: “Get the fuck out of that house, morons!”
However, the movies themselves (shot from the killer’s POV) are legitimate nightmare fuel. The footage of the group hanging in the backyard tree (replete with bags over the victims’ heads and fruitless kicking at the air as they rise off the ground) sets the tone from the opening credits, and we’re then treated to four other similarly twisted mini-movies as Hawke reviews the evidence, whiskey in hand, eyes bulging with revulsion and terror.
The last is the most unsettling; it involves a lawnmower. I’ll leave it at that.
As usual, the resolution isn’t as satisfying as the buildup, although it’s not bad. The case could be made that Sinister is a mashup of other horror films that have done all of this better.
Still, there’s a test that any veteran horrorphile gives a thriller: If you’re watching late at night, and no one else is awake (the optimum way to watch, imo), and you’re even a teensy bit afraid to go into another dark room, and you jump at even the most benign noises, then the damn film has done its job. I tensed as a stair creaked when I walked downstairs. My heart leapt when I heard my infant daughter cry out in her sleep from the other room. And when my wife, asleep in bed next to me, made this weird smacking sound with her mouth just at the film’s climax, I nearly squealed out loud.
Well, maybe you’re a fucking pussy, you say.
Well, maybe. But I’ve seen lots of this shit. I hope for a couple good “jump” scares per movie, and I’m usually let down. This one had me unsettled from the beginning and pretty goddamn creeped out by the end.
Your scare mileage may vary, but it’s my review. So fuck off.