As a horror movie that’s incredibly effective and yet evaporates pretty quickly once it’s over, Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” defines the difference between “scary” and “haunting.” Truthfully it’s a balance of a lot of things – ghost story versus murder mystery, found-footage “realism” versus pure fiction, theatricality versus raw emotion – but it exemplifies an era in which audiences, much less filmmakers, no longer distinguish between suspense and terror, which is why their payoffs work twice as brilliantly but linger half as long. Overproduced but occasionally deeply powerful, “Sinister” is a satisfying old-school thrill ride whose muscle eventually overpowers its brain.
Ethan Hawke (“Daybreakers”) plays Ellison, a narcissistic author of true-crime novels who relocates his family to a new home in order to investigate a series of murders committed in the back yard. Failing to mention to his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) their new home’s homicidal history, Ellison quickly immerses himself in the details of the case, but his first breakthrough happens only after he finds a projector and several reels of Super-8 film in the attic. Although they’re innocuously labeled, each turns out to be footage of a different murder, culminating in the hanging of the previous inhabitants of his house.
But as he begins to uncover links between the different reels and the deaths depicted on them, Ellison soon realizes that he has tapped into something more serious than a tabloid crime that needs resolution. Scrambling to figure out the truth, Ellison’s sanity quickly deteriorates and he’s forced to decide whether to follow through his investigation to the end, or stop before it’s too late.
What’s initially interesting about “Sinister” is that it actually features footage that has been found, but it’s in no way a “found-footage” movie: the Super-8 reels unspool as Ellison watches them, but the central mystery revolves around precisely who filmed them, and the larger story never resorts to first-person-POV shots, instead preferring a classic combination of moody lighting, provocative cinematography and deliberate pacing. Ellison’s douchebaggy self-justification notwithstanding – you can almost hear Derrickson and his co-writer Robert Cargill brainstorming creative ways to avoid him involving the cops, telling his family, or just plain giving up – there’s an elegant simplicity to the film’s synthesis of truth-seeking and haunted-house shock that efficiently escalates the stakes of his investigation, and effectively foretells payoffs that it feels almost appropriate that the audience sees but he doesn’t.
Moreover, the sound design is terrific, and Derrickson’s camerawork mostly makes you ignore the fact that these people seem consistently disinclined to use lights, or that when they do they’re always conveniently located in places that produce the most dramatic shadows. But almost as often as it perfectly underscores the required mood for a scene, the soundtrack overpowers a lot of the material, insisting that things are a lot scarier than they might otherwise have been, and sometimes confuses lines or the audience between score and atmospheric noise. Each Super-8 movie, for example, features its own unique musical accompaniment, and while that helps distinguish one set of murders from another, it creates an automatic (rather than earned) sense of “terror” that’s not leading us but telling us we’re supposed to start getting nervous. In many cases it wasn’t clear where the music ended and the bumpy house noises began, which muddles our emotional investment – or at the very least distracts from it – and undermines any deeper impact its mostly terrific ideas might have made.
Otherwise, albeit crucially, it’s only in the final moments that Derrickson and Cargill let slack the tension they’ve been creating, primarily because it’s at that point they seem to feel compelled to explain or delineate the mythology that’s been mysterious for so much of the rest of the film. And truthfully, that’s what we want at that point – or what we think we want, anyway. But somehow it either reveals too much or not enough, because there’s one punctuative act that ties together all of the loose ends, and it’s unnecessarily followed by several minutes of material that sort of only confirms that, “yeah, what you thought it was, was right.” If the guilty party was essentially never in doubt, then we needn’t see another plan carried out in the same way the film has already deconstructed several times, even if it’s being carried out with the folks that we’ve been watching (and whom we now presumably care about).
Ultimately, however, this choice less ruins the movie than undermines its lingering impact, because up until then it was truly nerve-wracking, and almost nothing is scarier when it’s fully explained. (“Fully explained” being a relative term in this and most other horror movie mythologies.) But overall, “Sinister” works like gangbusters, whittling away at the character’s certainty that there’s nothing deeper at work while bolstering the audience’s that there definitely is. Chilling and compelling in many of the best possible ways, it roundly possesses the same entertainment value as any of its big-budget, mainstream counterparts. But “Sinister” lacks a thematic and emotional complexity that gives it little deeper resonance, which is why its transgressions offer so much shock, but not nearly enough awe. [B-]