Let it be said: Sinister boasts a naughty, dejected, little deviant of a title screen, and as an unmitigated proponent of title and credit sequences, this is a great boon to my mental state.
A title screen that is, within the first few seconds of the film, a great surprise to anyone familiar with the work of director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, who is, to be charitable, not a director of great style.
From there, Sinister continues to surprise until right up near the end, not because of a meaningfully sharp narrative or wholly well-realized characters, but because it is a surprisingly well-composed work of filmmaking in a tried-and-true genre that sometimes seems to have gone the way of the bikini-beach teen flick, or the boxer-with-a-soul film: the haunted house genre. A genre which has been back with a fury in recent years (one the few sub-genres genuinely thriving in the 2010s), and, if Sinister isn’t up to the best of the new batch (The Conjuring is not likely to be topped any time soon), it is a nifty one all its own.
And an unsettling one, which is an entirely different question from whether it is scary or dramatically effective. For a good long while, the film is all three. Unsettling because of a surprisingly well-mounted slow build into the nether regions of a house and the movies that reside there. Scary because of a series of surprisingly well-crafted jump scares backed up by some nimble framing and physical timing to the action. Dramatically effective because it is all married to a deft and unnaturally textured exploration of writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his obsessive fixation with death, the film soberly stopping to glance at a failing family life brought on by his quest to recreate past success as a true crime writer. It’s a light touch, but the way the writers casually implicate Oswalt and question his motives without necessarily indicting him is a surprising (there’s that word again) pleasure.
A surprising film then (I did use the word four times in the last paragraph), if not necessarily a great film, but it does boast great elements. Hawke in the main role is fully committed to the role (not always true for him and genre films), absolutely selling the darker regions of the character and his empathetic but damaged curiosity for death and personal success. Accompanying family members Tracy (Juliet Rylance), Ashley (Clare Foley), and Trevor (Michael D’ Addario) are not necessarily essential parts, but they fill out the family dynamic with a lived-in quality that explores the history of the family without making it the focus of the film.
The slow-burn of the screenplay is another success, which affords Derrickson a chance to play around with film vocabulary (who’d a thought he could anyway?) when Hawke’s character discovers a box of Super 8 home movies that depict various families being murdered over time. While researching for his current true crime book, he begins to tease out connections between the decades-spanning murders. Derrickson plays around with implication and reveal when Hawke watches the films, adopting a grainier approach and letting the terrific sound design do the talking. Christopher Norr’s cinematography isn’t anything special, but the shadows do dance, don’t they?
Better still, Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have found a genuinely compelling means by which to explore the now-replete found footage genre without forcing the medium to become the structure of the film. By actually having a character “find” the footage and come to terms with it, they avoid the pointless ugliness and cheapness of the medium as the focus of the material, but they retain its grisly immediacy as a counterpoint to the relative smoothness of the main story. Which, in turn, allows Derrickson to experiment with that grisliness and slowly have it take over the film – just as it takes over Oswalt’s life – which turns it into a thematic gesture rather than a cheap money-saving mechanism.
So we have a veritable legion of strengths for Sinister, although they are admittedly minor ones. It is a well directed film, but not a notably well directed film, and the same applies to the writing, both of which eventually tumble into revealing more of the eventual monster (both physically, as a character on screen, and conceptually, by giving that character a needless backstory) than the film can afford. There are also a few exposition-heavy moments that don’t sit as well even if they narratively make sense. A problem shared to a greater extent by James Wan’s Insidious, and, if we are being honest with ourselves, a great number of horror films (the build-up always being better than the pay-off). But minor strengths are strengths, and if Sinister isn’t a horror classic in the making, this house is well worth a visit or two.