Sinister Review: Assured But Ultimately Generic Horror Flick

rating: 3

After decades of creaky doors and ominous thumps in the attic, it€™s fair to say that the haunted house movie has officially been done to death. To such an extent, in fact, that even slight mention of this spooky sub-genre is enough to invite sly grins and raised eyebrows. Which is another way of saying that audiences have seen just about every variation on the haunted house formula and have been exposed to each one of its little tricks. So moviegoers might be forgiven for thinking they€™ve seen Sinister - the latest exercise in terror from the producers of Insidious and Paranormal Activity - before. And even more recently than they expected, perhaps: it might well have been called Insidious II, for its similarities to James Wan's 2011 horror don't just end with vengeful demon children and supernatural deities... it's basically the same movie in slightly different packaging. Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison, a true crime writer who uplifts his family and moves them into a new house that just happened to be the setting for a series of deadly murders years ago. Unlike many horror movie protagonists who find out much later that they€™ve moved in with the spirits of evil, Ellison knows that the murders took place here and is hoping to uncover some hidden truths for a new book - the book that he also hopes is going to launch him back to glory and reignite his bank account. The plot centres around Ellison€™s discovery of several spookily-labelled Super 8 reels in the attic of his new home. What he originally believes to be recordings of normal family events, like picnics and pool parties, soon reveal themselves to be tapings of horrific and creatively-planned murders carried out by an unknown antagonist who is always concealed beneath a terrifying mask that would give Saw€™s Jigsaw a run for his money. These 8mm reels also happen to be the film€™s most successfully-realised moments of horror. 8mm is automatically eerie given that the footage as old and grainy, and here the murders (projected onto Ellison€™s office wall) are genuinely uncomfortable to watch. The remainder of Sinister is generic horror at its most middling. What begins as a curious and obsessive look at a man€™s increasingly frustrating pursuit of the truth only culminates with unexplained plot points and an anti-climatic ending that threatens everything that came before it. Most of the scares are achieved through (just like in its sister movie Insidious) jumpy moments on the soundtrack paired with something or someone leaping out on the screen in close-up. These get old much too quickly, even if the director tries to throw you off with some purposely elusive camera placements. But Ethan Hawke€™s performance manages to save the film from true mediocrity (though his wife, played by Juliet Rylance, doesn€™t seem capable of a believable line-reading at all). The best scenes are those that depict Hawke as he studies the abundance of footage. His reactions are true enough to enhance the unsettling nature of the reels. The cinematography is crisp and glassy and surprisingly artistic for a genre movie like this. And unlike with Insidious, there€™s a better grasp of funny running through Sinister that doesn€™t throw off the entire tone. It€™s difficult to judge which movie is better (and a comparison is most definitely necessary in this case). Insidious is the more frightening of the two (by a slight margin), but Sinister is far more confident and assured in its execution and tone. If you liked the former, then you€™ll find Sinister an enjoyable (if not workmanlike) take on the haunted house movie. Just don€™t expect it to do anything you haven€™t seen done a hundred times before. Sinister is out in UK cinemas now.
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