Ethan Hawk stars as a true crime writer known as Ellison who moves into a new home with his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and his two children, Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) near the site of a local crime in order to get inspiration for his novel. During an exploration of the house Ellison stumbles across a box with an 8mm camera and a selection of films, which upon viewing exploit gruesome murders. This thrusts area hero into a terrifying mystery as he tries to piece together the meaning behind it all.
With horror films these days we come to know what to expect. We're given characters that we can't connect with merely there to service the plot and an un-original story that we've seen time and time again bringing the audience no sense of engagement. But mostly we're never scared beyond the mere technique of a jump scare. With director Scott Derrickson we are shown again how mainstream horror can creep on us with effective imagery and suggestion. The scares here can be portrayed by just using obscure camera angles and bizarre images that unsettle us. Derrickson understands though that using loud bands and noises to jolt the audience can be done effectively. By backing up these moments with his strong imagery he uses it as a tactic to implant these horrific moments in our minds.
The highlight however is the use of the 8mm films. Sinister is in love with the idea of film, from celluloid to digital as not only are we treated to disturbing super 8 films but Ellison boasts are large collection of VHS tapes of his old achievements. It's a nice, simple touch that film fans will appreciate. These 8mm films though boast some truly graphic sequences, one particularly involving a garden tool. Backed with a moody soundtrack by Christopher Young who's worked on other horror gems such as "Drag Me To Hell" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". It feels more of an ambiance piece rather than a fully diegetic score merging together a series of dark and effective sounds building the feeling of dread constantly throughout.
Written by Derrickson himself and writer C. Robert Cargill the screenplay manages for the most part to push past the bland formula we've grown to endure with horror films of late. The film brings an intriguing plot that manages to put you in the position of Ellison's character, uncovering the plot and mystery when he does. There are scenes in which are hero re-visits the 8mm films and discovers new elements to them which adds a new depth to the story. The film feels relentless, rarely taking time to slow down and constantly feeling as though it's propelling towards something. However elements of the script are where the weaker parts of the film shine. While managing to bring interesting uses of horror and tension the film often retreads over clichéd ground as though it's trying to keep a warm attitude towards mainstream audiences. These are the times when the film feels as though it may lose focus but always manages to pick up its feet again. Alongside this we have some underused side and poorly written characters such as a police deputy who doesn't feel natural within the whole scale of things.
Sinister may tread over worn ground by it still manages to feel fresh and revitalizing in an age where we've conformed to the degrading standards of horror. It embraces the roots of horror and film in general making it much more than a homage and a feeling of an original yet genuinely terrifying story. Hawk manages to carry the emotional tangent of the narrative while the other characters are merely serviceable. It's not groundbreaking but for a mainstream horror film it takes some inventive and daring steps creating a terrifying, disturbing yet absorbing piece of cinema.