Sinister tells the story of a true crime writer, Ellison (Ethan Hawke) who moves into a house which was the scene of gruesome murders from the 60s to the 90s. He unexpectedly finds a box of home movies, which turn out to be snuff films, specifically depicting the murders he’s investigating and a shadowy figure present at each murder. Inevitably, things start happening around the house, his son starts experiencing night terrors and the film projector starts up of its own accord. Combined with this, Ellison grows paranoid, fuelled by drink, late nights and a desire to complete his book, which he is convinced is his next big break, as time goes by, he becomes more and more unstable until he eventually breaks down and decides to call it a day on the book. Is that the end of his story? Not a chance.
So as with most horror films I watch, a good place to start is my expectation. Unfortunately I’ve fallen into a bad habit of pre-judging most horror films. Given the standard of horror films in recent years, can you blame me? So my preconceptions of Sinister were, based on the trailer, that it looked pretty good, even if the trailer did give a lot away (be warned, if you haven’t seen Sinister, and plan to watch it, don’t watch the trailer! It definitely gives away too much!). Sinister actually exceeded my expectations, I thought that it was going to be fairly bog-standard, fairly non-memorable, but actually it was much better than that. For starters, similarly to The Conjuring, Sinister harks back to the golden age of horror cinema, but this is combined with the modern-day urban legend of snuff movies. Now the ultimate movie on this topic is 8mm, regardless of what your opinion of this film is, it is arguably the first type of film which falls into the ‘digital torture porn’ genre. The combination of the two, actually works really well. The films Ellison watches are pretty creepy, and look pretty realistic in terms of its aesthetic, but combined with the glaring glow of his Mac where he slows down, splices and freezes frames of the films, its a reminder of the link between snuff films; extreme content and the internet.
The plotline behind Sinister, is a little silly. It’s a little far-fetched and ridiculous. But actually this is counteracted really nicely with Ellison’s character. His decent into anxiety and madness adds a humanist side to Sinister. One of the most pivotal scenes, which actually makes audiences doubt our protagonist’s reliability is the conversation he has with the police officer who is helping him compile his research. The focus in this scene is largely on Ellison’s drinking habits and he is forced to confront his own beliefs about what is happening in the house and with his book. This is lost slightly in the film’s finale, which descends into cursed videotapes, and phantoms and being transported into a snuff film, super-8 world. And in retrospect, I think that a continuation of the mental state of Ellison perhaps would have worked better for the film.
The scares in Sinister aren’t just cheap jump scares, granted there are a few, but actually the scares come from a subtle atmosphere ever-present within the film. There isn’t too much reliance on darkness, jump scares, creepy apparitions etc, and actually I think a lot of it relies on Ethan Hawke’s fairly realistic reactions to changes within his environment. In addition to this, Ellison is the main focus of the film, there are no tangents focusing on his family, which adds to the feeling of isolation, which in itself is probably the foundation for the scary element of this film. There is no gore to exploit, it’s reliance on its cast is what makes Sinister pretty scary.
I think that Sinister deserves some credit It’s certainly not brilliant, but I wouldn’t say it’s bad either. Amongst the raft of terrible horror films which solely use cheap jump scares, which for some reason passes for genuine terror nowadays, Sinister definitely stands out as a better example of minimalist horror. It’s a shame that it gets a bit silly toward the end, but not so ridiculous it suffers. It’s a good cheap one-or-two viewing film, which for a Saturday night in is well worth the cost.