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September 25, 2012

I cannot, for the life of me, determine why the promotional materials for Sinister connect it with both Paranormal Activity and Insidious. The two are such radically different movies that it leaves a prospective viewer guessing whether this will be a stultifying non-event like the former, or a genuinely scary horror story like the latter. If the trailer doesn’t make it clear, though, I am here to tell you: Sinister is a powerfully effective chiller in the vein of Insidious, with plenty of scares to go around.

We again join our tale as a family moves into a new house. Ellison (Ethan Hawke) needs to move to this small town in central Pennsylvania to research his next book, and he brings his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and his kids, Trevor and Ashley (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) along for the ride, as usual. Ellison writes true crime novels, researching lurid murders and occasionally turning up clues the official investigations missed. His first book won him acclaim, but he’s since garnered scorn from the local police wherever he moves. The local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) assures him it’s the same here. At least Ellison can assure his wife that they’re not living two houses down from a crime scene.

No, this time they’ve moved into the crime scene itself. Four of the home’s previous tenants — parents and two kids — were hanged, slowly, from a tree in the backyard; one young girl is missing and presumed dead. Ellison means to find out what happened, having no idea what he’s getting his family into.

His research is easier than might be expected, thanks to an unexpected find: a box of Super 8 home movies sitting in the attic. One of them — labeled “Hanging Around” — gives Ellison a front-row seat to the murders that brought him to this house. The others — “Barbecue”, “Pool Party”, “Sleepy Time” — make it clear that this is much bigger than he’d expected. And that’s when things really get weird. Trevor’s night terrors recur, Ellison starts hearing things, and the family begins to come apart at the seams.

There’s a thematic analysis to be made here, detailing how Sinister explores the destructive effect obsession — especially about work — has on the home. Indeed, Hawke’s portrait of a man slowly becoming unraveled and torn from his family provides the emotional core, and his performance is the sort of thing that would be up for awards if they gave acting awards for genre pictures. Ain’t It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill has come up with a great story his first time out, with the help of Scott Derrickson.

But that all aside, it’s Derrickson’s direction — abetted by Chris Norr’s cinematography and Christopher Young’s delightfully weird and creepy score — that make this film come together. The tension is orchestrated brilliantly, rising and falling, and keeping the audience entranced.

The home movies are some of the real gems, here. Even taken on their own, each one is a mini-masterpiece of the morbid and macabre. Shot on actual Super 8 film, and carefully set off from the rest of the movie by some brilliant sound design, they work in context to set a fantastic tone, further isolating the action from the outside world.

And despite earning itself an R for disturbing imagery, it’s astonishing to consider carefully just how little explicit content we ever see. When you have actual talent on your side, you can create an atmosphere and get real scares without resorting to cheap gore. To make a horror film this effective without that crutch is the mark of a real master.

Worth It: yes, for any horror fan.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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