Sometimes you can make a good horror movie without making it an actual good film. Unlike many of its genre cousins, horror can survive bad narrative, bad acting, even bad directing if it manages to create sequences of legitimate dread and tension. If those moments create a visceral reaction from the audience, the other narrative components that fail can be forgiven, if not forgotten completely. All 110 minutes of Sinister, written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill and directed by Scott Derrickson, continually proves this point.
Sinister follows a family led by the father, Ellison Oswalt(Ethan Hawke), a washed up real-crime novelist who is hoping for one last bestseller. In this hope, he moves his family to the house where a terrible crime, and subject of his next novel, occurred. The rest of the first act is spent setting up the threat of the film, which comes in the form of a collection of mysterious and disturbing Super 8 film footage of actual murders, and Oswalt’s stubborn insistence on ignoring all good sense and continuing his research. If this “new start”, “just one more time” set-up seems familiar, it’s because it is. Derrickson and Cargill never seem too concerned with creating an actual framework of character development or believable decisions. They seem to view these moments as necessary fodder to get the story to the point they are interested in: the spooky ones.
To Sinister’s credit, these spooky scenes are incredibly effective. Despite a few CGI missteps and cliche jump scares, Derrickson, shows a real aptitude for creating a visually haunting and disturbing atmosphere. When Sinister is in these moments of horror, it is hard to call it anything but pure success. When it is in those more expositional moments, though, Sinister seems tired, lifeless, and more than a little awkward. There are moments of such staged exposition that it is distracting to the point of confusion. There are moments of coffee making, for instance, that seem staged, out of place, and just plain forced. Those awkward moments, among many others, prohibits the film from any subtleness in its set-ups. The viewer is ripped from the film and has the time to think “well, that’s gonna be important later”, which is never a good sign for the narrative.
The narrative in Sinister is also splintered by three different sub-genres fighting for leverage. The detective procedural, found footage, and paranormal horror are all present here and seem intent on subverting the effectiveness of its peers. For instance, the detective procedural is hell-bent on discovering and explaining information that leads us to an endpoint and a villain. Each discovery and explanation of the detective procedural, though, weakens the paranormal elements of Sinister. Fear thrives on darkness and the unknown. The more the audience can identify and understand the threat, the less terrifying it becomes. You can avoid and/or combat the known. The unknown is just that, unknowable. It can be anywhere, doing anything, to anyone. The more that Oswalt discovers and explains, the less scary the ending becomes.
With that said, the final act and its horror does mostly stay afloat in the sea of effectiveness through its climax. This is because of two logistical elements. The score of the film and the visual skill of the filmmakers. What the detective procedural strips from the tension of Sinister, the pounding, chaotic score of Christopher Young manages to supplement it. That, combined with effective visuals, allows Sinister to elevate above not being a good film into being a pretty damn effective horror movie.
That effectiveness makes Sinister an impressive, entertaining ride, on par with a fantastic haunted attraction. Unfortunately, it never really pulls together to form any real resonance beyond that. What we end up with is a hell of a lot of creepy pieces that never really add up to a satisfying whole.