"Sinister" follows a true crime author, Ellison (Ethan Hawke) who moves his family (unbeknownst to them) into a house where an entire family was hung to death in a tree in their backyard, save the youngest daughter who vanished without a trace. Upon moving in, Ellison finds a box of 8mm footage and a projector in the attic; contained in these reels of film are various murders dating from the 1960s up to present day— one of them is the filming of the hanging murder that occurred in his backyard. As he furthers investigation into the footage, he finds more than he bargained for when connections are made to an ancient deity who takes the souls of children.
On a surface level, "Sinister" appears like every other horror piece on the market, but I was surprised by the substance the film had. Conceptually and thematically speaking, it's not painfully original, but director Scott Derrickson makes up for that with striking visuals and a daunting soundtrack. The opening of the film is particularly disturbing— the movie begins with the family hanging murder, which sets a damned unsettling tone for the rest of the film.
In terms of the supernatural elements at play in the script, they almost seem fairytale-ish (a Pagan deity who feeds on children— c'mon), but it does add a unique element to the film. I have to say though that the most frightening thing in this movie are the actual murder tapes themselves. It could be just me, but the notion of filmed murders unsettles me to the core, even if I know that the footage is faked; as if the act of murder itself isn't awful enough, documenting it is downright... well, sinister. The footage utilized in the film is unsettling, shocking, and above all, it's realistic, so the audience gets the same unpleasant feelings shared by Ethan Hawke's character. Truly macabre stuff.
Another major positive for this film is that the acting is far above par for what most genre fans are dealt. Ethan Hawke is a quality actor and newcomer Juliet Rylance proves her chops here; their scenes together are particularly strong, and much more than any horror fan could dream of asking for. The film's ending can be seen from a certain distance, although it doesn't necessarily make it less shocking in this case. If anything, it adds to the sense of dread pervading the film.
Overall, "Sinister" was a pleasant surprise for me. It doesn't offer heaps in terms of originality, but it's a stylistically stunning film and takes steps in the right in direction very gracefully. When it comes down to it, I can't say that I was even really "scared" by the film so much as I was unsettled by it. It has its share of orthodox jump scares, but I was more bothered and rattled by the grim nature of the film as a whole, which is a nice feeling to walk away from the theater with as a thick-skinned genre fan who has become increasingly harder to unnerve. 7/10.