Sunday, October 14, 2012


 3 / 5 

Sinister values style over substance, which in the case of a horror movie that could otherwise be pretty predictable, is a very good thing: I felt more uneasy and unnerved after seeing Sinister than I have in a long time.

Director Scott Derrickson brings Sinister a sharp visual flair, full of mood and unhappiness, as if the haunted house at the center of the story has been consumed by shadows that can never lift.  Sinister is a horror movie that seems to aspire to something more, at least from that visual standpoint -- even when the script strains credulity to explain why the lights are never on, the resulting lights and shadows are the closest to classic film noir that today's literal-minded audiences might accept.  It's almost thrilling to see a B-movie created with such care.

The story, on the other hand, is slightly less innovative, though it certainly begins with an unpleasant bang: Four people are hung by a tree as we watch the grainy, Super-8 film that documents their demise. It's not an image you want to dwell on, but the camera is unflinching, and if reading the description seems grisly, watching it is something else.

The movie is one of several snuff films that true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) finds in the attic of of the Pennsylvania house he's just moved his unwitting family into.  The tree is in the backyard but Ellison, in the first of many questionable decisions, has not bothered to inform his wife and two children about the murders.

A decade ago, Ellison achieved some notoriety with a best-seller, and he's just a little too determined to recapture some of that success; it doesn't cross his mind that maybe moving his family into the scene of a quadruple homicide isn't going to elicit a bunch of chuckles.

Mysteriously, a box of the Super 8 movies appears in his attic, and Ellison can't stop watching as, one after one, families meet violent ends on film.  Never mind that most of these movies were made long after videotape came into fashion, or that splicing together Super 8 film doesn't make the most compelling dramatic action.

Slowly, it comes clear that there is something bizarre and likely supernatural at work here.  But through it all, Sinister seems less concerned with creating a coherent story or believable action than creating a palpable sense of dread.

In that, it works.  Sinister is designed less to make you jump and scream than rattle your nerves deeply. No, the story doesn't make much sense.  No, there's really not a valid reason the lights in the house malfunction but the electricity that drives the Super 8 movie projector works just fine.  Plot strands are dropped without rhyme or reason, and the ending is simultaneously overwrought and perfunctory.

Sinister may not be a movie that holds up on a second viewing.  But when the sights and, more importantly, sounds are this unsettling and even genuinely disturbing, a second viewing really isn't necessary. Sit through Sinister once. That's likely all it will take to keep your own lights on.

Viewed Oct. 14, 2012 -- ArcLight Pasadena


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