Review of Sinister

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A frightening new thriller from the producer of the Paranormal Activity films and the writer-director of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". Ethan Hawke plays a true crime novelist who discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies that plunge his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.
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Movie Review: "Sinister"

-- Rating: R (violent images, terror)
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Genre: Horror / Mystery

Mystery and horror are two genres that often go well together, but movies tend toward one or the other. Modern movies often seem obsessed with either slasher-style gore or nail-biting suspense, but "Sinister" takes a different approach. The movie uses a formula more commonly found in the horror movies of the 80s, which provides a welcome relief from more modern takes.

"Sinister" follows the story of true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) after he moves into a home where a brutal murder took place one year earlier. He discovers an old Super 8 film collection in the home and witnesses a number of murders that have occurred over the years. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), and son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) all support him as he begins to use the story of the home's previous occupants as a springboard for his new work. Over time, his study of the film leads him to seek the assistance of a police deputy (James Ransone) and a local professor named Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio) to decipher the clues and symbols found in the films. He quickly becomes embroiled in the tale of the films, and Ellison struggles to avoid his family becoming the next victims of the villain behind the tapes.

The film's acting relies heavily on physical movement, reaction shots, and other nonverbal cues. This is important, because the movie's pacing and flow struggles the few times that dialogue dominates the scenes. Hawke delivers an excellent performance as his character begins to unravel clues and seek meaning behind the murders. Rylance, Foley, and D'Addario create believable performances, enabling viewers to begin to sympathize with the Oswalt family before they are placed in harm's way. Ransone's few moments on the screen are memorable, and D'Onofrio delivers a real sense of foreboding even when he appears to have some of the answers. Overall, the acting is spot-on, and the only chinks in the armor appear when scenes become dialogue-heavy.

The cinematography in "Sinister" is some of the best moviegoers are likely to encounter in modern horror films. It hearkens back to the best movies of the late 20th century by providing wide angles and spooky shadows that enhance many of the film's key scenes. The movie does not rely on modern music-video-style transitions, but instead allows scenes to flow naturally with transitions that use cuts and pans effectively. The lighting choices made during the filming of "Sinister" are likely to help audiences feel immersed in the movie, further increasing suspension of disbelief even when the movie's less realistic elements take the fore.

The film's writer and director are the same person, and the writing is one place where a few hiccups become obvious. Apart from the slow-paced dialogue that bogs down some scenes, the movie's more intense scenes seem almost too obvious. This sort of setup was common in the last part of the 20th century, allowing moviegoers to know what was coming before actually seeing the monster or other horrific event, but it may feel a bit too familiar to modern audiences. This is especially true for those familiar with the first versions of movies such as "The Amityville Horror," which relies heavily on the same tropes as "Sinister." Likewise, the plot struggles at times to deal with the concept of elements that exist beyond science, threatening the suspension of disbelief as the nature of the true villain comes to light. These problems with the writing might have been better addressed by the director if the two roles were held by different people.

Scott Derrickson's direction shows that he understands physical acting and cinematography at a very high level. He melds these two elements into the best parts of "Sinister" in a seamless fashion, allowing moviegoers to jump in fright at the same moments as onscreen characters. The characters seem to naturally move, react, and even pause at just the right moments, and this sense of realism greatly aids the overall ambiance of the film. The only apparent glitch in the direction comes from the delivery of dialogue and exposition. The movie would likely have benefited from fewer details being delivered through the professor's lecture or the deputy's call, and more plot elements appearing through the Super 8 films that are at the heart of the movie's story.

"Sinister" relies heavily on its cinematography, physical action, and direction to make it stand out. The plot provides many different twists and turns sure to keep moviegoers guessing until the final scene. The film is a great choice for a scary movie night or even a fright-filled date and is likely to find itself on the shelves of fans who enjoy traditional horror films.

Rating: 4 out of 5