The concept of “found footage”--films based around footage supposedly discovered and viewed by some party to help them piece together the horrific events that transpired--is a crapshoot when used in movies. When well-utilized as an effective device to further a solid plot, found footage can produce stark terror as well as unbearable tension. This is evidenced in such flicks as “Rec” and “Rec 2,” “Cannibal Holocuast,” and the original “Blair Witch Project.” When used merely as a gimmick to produce jump scares, we are provided with complete shit-storms like “Quarantine” (which awkwardly molests the stellar plot of the original “Rec”) and the unbelievably awful “Paranormal Activity 4.” “Sinister” is one of the latest in a long line of Hollywood’s love-affair with this film trend.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a washed-up true crime writer that hasn’t had a bestseller in a decade, wants to cry about it, and just knows that his next book is going to put him back on top. He exhibits the pathologically-dickheaded habit of moving his innocent family to the towns in which these crimes occurred, presumably because he aspires to reach the literary equivalent of De Niro’s experiential, bat-shit insanity. Never mind that his children are subjected to relentless ridicule by their classmates and his wife can’t drive across town without getting pulled over and harassed (turns out local cops don’t like nosy authors attempting to illuminate investigative fuck-ups), Ellison’s gonna get his 15 more minutes! To this end, he surpasses each of his previous attempts to fuck his family by moving them, without their knowledge, directly into the home in which four family members were hung from a tree in the backyard.
Trouble begins when our protagonist finds a box in the attic containing a Super 8 projector (that he conveniently and inexplicably knows how to operate) and several short films with such innocent titles as “pool party” and “family barbecue.” The films span over four decades and each depicts some of the most gritty, sobering snuff scenes this side of “8 Millimeter,” including the self-explanatory and latest offering, “hanging out in the yard.” From here Oswalt sets up a control room that rivals anything over at Quantico and commences to investigate the mystery’s origins.
Hawke turns in a competent performance as a man both possessed and obsessed, spiraling quickly into a maelstrom of malevolent paganism and intense paranoia, becoming increasingly distanced from his family and the rest of reality in the process (constantly toting around a bottle doesn’t help much.) Assisted in his search by a small-town deputy and a sadly-underutilized but always awesome Vincent D’Onofrio (playing a college professor well-versed in the occult), Ellison slowly unravels the riddle at the risk of his own sanity.
While Hawke’s performance shoulders most of the heavy-lifting, the real star of this one is the found footage itself. With their active revelations upon successive viewings and chillingly indelible images, the films are just as much a character presence as the Overlook Hotel (“The Shining”) and the Danvers State Mental Hospital (“Session 9”). Director Scott Derrickson (of such films as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and the oddly alluring “Hellraiser: Inferno) follows the lead of “Seven” in showing just enough to leave something to the imagination and keeping the movie from devolving into shameless exploitation. This unusual show of restraint in large part makes for a solid and not-too-predictable thriller. This one also receives points for not slicing off its own testicles with a safe and impotent ending (two male genitalia references in one sentence)!!!!
The bottom line: This one is worth checking out and is definitely in the better half of recent horror releases. As usual, see in a theater for full effect.
Rating: 3 out of 5 pagan demons.