A few weeks ago, Sinister made Fantastic Fest audiences shriek. And briefly (very briefly) Rotten Tomatoes tracked the film at a whopping 100 percent fresh rating, unheard of for horror. Now the RT meter is at 60 percent, still the highest rated horror film of 2012 (unless you count Frankenweenie's 86 percent, but we sure don't.) A better comparison would be Jennifer Lawrence's House at the End of The Street, whose rating is an awfully low 12 percent. Better still, might be Smiley, also opening today, whose rating is 0 percent.
The story: Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime writer who had a bestseller a decade ago, but now is desperate for a hit. So naturally, he moves his family into a home where the previous residents hanged themselves, all but little Stephanie (Victoria Leigh) who went missing. He hopes he's got another hit. What he discovers is a box in the attic containing a film projector, an 8mm home movie of the aforementioned hanging and more reels with more family outings. Different homes. Different families. What's the connection?
Soon Ellison's drinking a lot, converting all those home movies on his laptop, learning to rewind, pause and zoom. At which point, this occult thriller gets way weird and a lot of bad (and super scary!) stuff happens. Behold, the best horror flick we've seen all year and our reasons why.
1. The Script Subverts the Genre: A lot of what's teased in the TV spots is not really what's actually going in the film. Yes, the creepy mask guy is effective (we'll get to that), and the title Sinister might make you think of Insidious, but writer/director Scott Derrickson uses familiar horror tropes as a misdirect. And when is the last time you saw a scary flick without a hot young actress in the lead? Although Juliet Rylance, who plays Hawke's wife, is easy on the eyes.)
2. Ethan Hawke Delivers His Best Performance in Years: Playing a guy who puts his family in the worst home ever to boost his career will never win any Father-of-the-Year awards. Ellison's blind ambition to "break the story" makes him really reckless, which makes Hawke is mesmerizing. We want to see Ellison uncover the horrible truth of what really happened almost as much as we hope his own family gets as far away from him as possible.
3. The Music Is Disturbing, but Doesn't Give Fake Jolts: A lot of the story takes place at night as Ellison obsesses over the found home and a bottle of booze. The thumps from that attic can be deafening. Even more disturbing is the way the film's score by Christopher Young permeates each scene with an electronic, throbbing, skittery vibe.
4. Those Kids Are Creepy: Early on Ellison's son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) is found screaming, seeming very possessed (making with the crazy contortions), but he's not. He's having the worst night terror ever. Scattered throughout the home are other little ones who seem life-deprived. Many times, Ellison doesn't even see them. But we do.
5. Yes, There's Eerie Found Footage, but Sinister Is Shot Like a Real Movie: After the grainy, slow-motion opening with the 8mm reel revealing the gruesome hanging, we cut to crisp, clean widescreen of a new family on the move: Ellison's. Not a shaky cam in sight. Most of the film is from Ellison's point of view. While there is a scene where Ellison uses his cell phone for video capture, the more professional film look enhances the experience, making what we eventually see all the more convincing.
6. The Comedy (Yes, Comedy!) Actually Is a Relief: As Ellison becomes overwhelmed by the ever mounting mysteries (why are all these families spread across the country?!) he employs the service of local Deputy "So-and-So" (James Ransone). Ellison even names him that on his phone's contact list. So-and-So is a true-crime aficionado whose adoration of Ellison lightens the mood just enough to let audience breathe, until...
7. Bughuul, aka The Boogieman, Lives Up to His Name: Like the devilish creature in Insidious (same producer), the long-forgotten white-faced specter known as Bughuul (Nicholas King) is horrifying. According to the expert professor (Vincent D'Onofrio), this boogieman harnesses power just from being seen or even drawn. A sort of a prehistoric Ring-like curse falls upon those that allowed his disturbing visage into their sights.
8. The End...Major Yikes: As Ellison puts all those short films together we started to realize where this was heading. But we'd never spoil the surprise ending.
Have you seen Sinister yet? Were you as terrified as we were? Or are you saving your nightmares for yet another Paranormal Activity? Sound off in the comments!