Too often, Horror filmmaking is approached by trying to come up with the most gruesome act of violence, or coming up with surprises you could never see coming. But Sinister avoids both of these tracts – instead, the driving force behind it is creating a film that looks scary.
Sinister pulls plot elements from big Horror hits from the last decade – home video (Paranormal Activity), unnatural disappearances of children (The Ring) and elaborate death sequences (Saw). They all come up as a journalist (Ethan Hawke), investigating the potential murder of a young girl, moves into a normal-seeming house to write his new true-crime novel.
Sinister scores some points right out of the gate by putting up some good character work. Hawke’s character is immediately confronted by Police for something he wrote in the past. It’s never explicitly mentioned what was done, but the tension in the conversation and the mystery of what set it off puts the movie into high gear before Hawke even has a chance to get the heebie jeebies.
But we don’t have to wait much longer for that. A scene later, Hawke finds a box of old Super 8 home movies that contain, instead of family get-togethers, a dozen murders.
Sinister actually opens cold with one of these movies – a minute-long and mostly still single shot showing the slow, systematic hanging of four figures heads covered by burlap sacks. The method by which they are killed is equally pragmatic and (even by homicidal standards) disturbing. It’s like a child’s game.
These videos go on to play an important role in Sinister. The house is less haunted than the images inside of it, and the visual representations of the dirty deeds are what does the scaring. One home movie shows a creepy looking face underwater – but what’s more frightening than the face is the preceding seconds where the ripple on the water makes the figure impossible to discern. We don’t know what’s underwater, but the mystery of the abstract gets to you with anticipation and fear.
Equally scary is Sinister’s willingness to underlight its setting. All of its scary scenes – set after dark, naturally – occur when Hawke is up late working on his book, the rest of the family already in bed. With all the lights out, the largest sources of light are laptop screens and windows letting in scant moonlight. What little light we are provided is studied intensely as Hawke walks around, looking for the origin of whatever strange sound he just heard. Even while following the standard scare procedure of Horror film, the universal darkness does a lot to punch up this picture.
But for as much as this use of photography really sets Sinister apart from the pack, it’s still drug down a bit by its overloud and obvious score. Big pangs of “WOMP” scream at every big shock, crudely oversaturating the thrill. At one point, we even get the BANG before the actual scare occurs on screen. Sound effects like these do a lot to bring down the creepyness, as though the filmmakers are saying the visuals can’t sell the scares on their own. Generally, Sinister‘s could have, but are instead diluted by the external music. Imagine how much creepier these moments could have been scored with nothing but the absent whirr of the projector running Super 8 in the background.
These sound effects aside, though, it’s difficult to not be at least a little on edge during Sinister. Watching as a silent partner to Hawke as he wanders the dark hallways, we know nothing good is waiting for him at the end. But we still dread whatever the next image brings us.