Reviewed by: Chris

"You could be forgiven for wondering if Sinister is based on a true story."

The autumn chill hits, and it’s a good time for horror movies...

Sinister comes from the people who gave us Paranormal Activity and also The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. Only it’s a little more... sinister. Found footage of snuff movies heralds its adult credentials before you’ve had time to choke on the nachos or splutter salsa over the person in front.

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A family is murdered. Months later, comeback writer Ellison Osborne moves into the house with his family. In the attic, he discovers a box of tapes that includes footage of many murders. Unbeknown to his family, he has chosen the house in order to research a true-crime novel. Having only had one bestseller, he sees this as his lucky break, his chance to write his In Cold Blood. The children start to act strangely and his good wife freaks out on him when she discovers the real reason they are living there.

Ethan Hawke, as Ellison, and lovely Shakespearean actress Juliet Rylance playing his wife, Tracy, immediately strike us as realistic characters worthy of belief and empathy. Their convincing personas have more depth than the average shock- flick, and we are sorely tempted to consider whether this at heart might be a psychological thriller of Hitchcockian nastiness. Yet if the trailer hasn’t given everything away, we are transported into a dark world of malignant forces the minute Ellison discovers a strange symbol repeated on the death tapes. Strong supporting acts appear in the form of a local police deputy – who changes from doting fanboy to calm, collected criminologist; and a little later Professor Jonas – the expert on bizarre cults. The professor makes this Babylonian demon ‘Bagul’ sound so realistic that you could be forgiven for wondering if Sinister is based on a true story, with Mansonesque worshipers helping Bagul to find souls of children to feast on.

More lost footage. More creaks and bumps in the Osborne family’s almost endless night. Ellison is losing the plot, but we are barely a knife-edge ahead of him. Cue cute kids, cue creepy kids, cue dead kids. Sinister will shortly become shriek-out-loud horror. As well as creeping inside your head on the way home, insidious horror. Polished production values handle clichéd camera jerks with admirable restraint. What we can see and know on-screen is nasty; what we don’t know is even more unsettling. Perhaps pausing only to admire the exquisite backing tracks and diligently applied sound effects, we soon realise we are hooked on trying to solve the mystery: who was the killer?

Sinister’s dark humour is equally discreet. Rather than being played for quick laughs, it emphasises the fear experienced by our protagonists. When Ellison is threatened by a Cujo-sized dog, he speaks soothingly, gently, while muttering a desire for the baseball bat to smash its skull in. And during a row with his wife, he says he hasn’t ‘really’ brought them to house where murder was comitted, since our crime occurred ‘in the garden’ (“As if that makes any difference!” Tracy explodes.)

Horror films sometimes work by challenging us to confront the things we abhor, and all from the safety of a cinema seat. Whether physical (mass murderers), mental (psychological threats) or psychical (supernatural happenings), horrors on a movie-screen do not have to be real – just real enough to remind us of something that could be. Our inner demons. The things we fear most. It could be said the ‘ghost’ haunting Ellison Osborne, his creeping, sweating, drink-sozzled paranoia, is evoked by his frankly unsavoury and obsessive career, his life’s dream, that is in reality destroying the family that he loves and frightening his children. As with Frankenstein before him, Ellison’s monstrosities might be partly of his own making. It might be tempting to see the monster as a reflection of him. Yet the very visible on-screen ghosts are nevertheless small works of art that capture our senses. That, and the gut- churningly self-assured, unexpected and irresistibly compelling ending swiftly sweep aside mundane interpretations.

Given the effort put into getting it right, a part of me would still have loved to see a police psychiatrist in the coda explaining how everything really happened. An ultimate reliance on the supernatural is fine for horror fans, but inevitably weakens mainstream impact. (Imagine Norman Bates had summoned his mother back from the dead instead of just putting a wig on.)

Sinister is far too derivative to be accorded a big place in cinema history; but this souped-up, low-budget compendium of dread is still more satisfying than most horror films that graced our screens this summer.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2012
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Sinister packshot
A ghost story and found footage meet a hackneyed true-crime novelist.
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Director: Scott Derrickson

Writer: C Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D'Addario, Juliet Rylance, Danielle Kotch, Nicholas King, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Blake Mizrahi, Rachel Konstantin, Ethan Haberfield

Year: 2012

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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Out Of The Dark
Sinister 2