Found footage horror movies are all the rage these days. “Paranormal Activity 4” just started its inevitably profitable run almost a week ago, and there have been several others released earlier in the year. One that slipped under the radar, which came out a few weeks back, was “Sinister,” although possibly that’s because it’s not your typical found footage movie. It has long sections of grainy home video playing out with creepy imagery, but that’s because the true main character is watching them, and the real story is about him and his family.
Ellison is a true crime writer who had his big break years ago with his first book, where he tracked down the real killer in a case and saved the innocent suspect being held accountable. However, in one of his follow-up books, he attempted a similar investigation, except in this case got the innocent man killed and the real killer set free. With his name disgraced and on the bad side of cops in local towns, he needs another hit bad in order to redeem himself. An opportunity comes up when an entire family is murdered and their daughter goes missing, so Ellison moves his family into their house and begins his research. Once he finds a box full of home videos with the murders on them though, weird things start happening around the house.
By blending elements of found footage, the supernatural, and even dashes of slasher movies sprinkled throughout, “Sinister” takes familiar facets of the genre and makes them work without feeling derivative. It even smartly sidesteps some of the frustrations that people have with horror genre (“Leave the house,” “Call the cops,” etc.) by providing rational explanations for why the family wouldn’t do these things. If anything, the family drama scenes are arguably the best ingredients in the plot. Too often, horror movies let the stock stereotypes define the characters and cost by on the throwaway banter between them, but “Sinister” manages to make you legitimately care about these people. The relationships between Ellison and his wife and kids are palpable, and the flawed characterization of Ellison makes him a much more interesting character to watch than most horror characters.
This strong characterizations and acting (courtesy of Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance) is important because they are able to sustain the film’s plot even when the horror parts don’t work as well as they could. Director Scott Derrickson, who also wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill (former film critic of Aint It Cool News and Spill.com), has created a whole mythology for the demon at the center of the film, Bughuul, a terrifying creation with his dark, angled eyes and pale visage. His appearances are very effective, lending an air of menace to the video footage, on top of the already chilling imagery of watching the original families being murdered. Derrickson understands the simple creepiness of little movements and sounds, establishing a strong sense of mood and atmosphere, as well as dolling out gruesome and disturbing blood moments without being gratuitous.
Where Derrickson stumbles is keeping the momentum and pace at the right pitch. The majority of the first two acts is Ellison watching the video footage; creepy enough on its own but less so in creating an air of danger to the main characters. To counteract this, jump scares are often applied to break up the tension, and some are well used while others are there just to give the audience a cheap jolt. At nearly two hours, the film could have used some editing trims and maybe even some script polish to compress events to create a more fluid plot momentum, as well as dialing back the cheaper scares that aren’t necessary.
Even with this overstretched buildup, by the time the final stretch rolls along, Derrickson and Cargill have concocted some clever tricks up their sleeve to make the experience worthwhile with a proper payoff. The climax isn’t a clichéd chase and fight for survival, but conceived as an event with more subtle and, yes, sinister intentions. I won’t be surprised if this ending polarizes audiences, as some will love it (as I do) while others will probably not jive well with it. For myself, even with the somewhat repetitive and slow beginning and middle (at least in terms of the horror), the outcome was worth it and because I cared about these characters, I remained invested in the story all throughout. For those that are perhaps tired of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise (of which I still haven’t seen the new one), “Sinister” is a worthwhile and very recommended horror alternative for Halloween time.