The opening shot of Sinister is enough to ensure it a spot on any list of the all-time scariest horror movies.
The image is grainy and desaturated. Perhaps it’s an old 8mm home movie that we’re watching. Except for the whirring of the projector, there’s no sound. We see a family of four standing in a backyard. Each has a brown burlap sack over their head and a rope around their neck that connects them to a tree branch above. Suddenly, an offscreen mechanism is triggered, and the four people are slowly tugged skyward. They kick their feet around in slow motion for a while, then the title “Sinister” flashes across the screen.
The movie has barely begun, and already it has attained a level of creepiness worthy of The Shining. It’s a level that the movie can’t sustain for very long, although it does come very close.
After the opening sequence, we are introduced to Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who is in the process of moving his family into the house where the hanging occurred. His family only knows that he’s in town to investigate a murder, not that their new home is the scene of the crime. The move seems to go smoothly until Oswalt goes up to the attic and discovers that a box has been left behind filled with old reels of home movie footage. Each reel has a title like “Hanging With the Family ’12” and “Pool Party ’86.” Oswalt sets up a projector in his private study, and, as expected, every reel turns out to be a snuff film. They all begin with footage of families doing ordinary family things. No one in the footage seems to be aware of the presence of the cameraman, who seems to be hiding in some bushes. Then in each case, there’s a hard cut to a bizarre execution. There are at least five reels, and they’re all as creepy as the one that opened the film.
The first thing that a reasonable person would do after making such a discovery would be to call the police and then move out of the house, but Oswalt, we soon learn, is desperate for another hit book—it’s been ten years since Kentucky Blood, his last success—and so he decides to stay put and investigate the case himself.
Oswalt’s investigation takes some improbable turns, especially in the final 30 minutes, which deflate a great deal of the tension by evoking the supernatural. But even when the plot turns silly, the movie is still fairly compelling, mostly thanks to Ethan Hawke, who genuinely seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To see an actor devote so much of himself to what most would regard as an unimportant B picture is rare and also kind of inspiring. On the page, Hawke’s character is thinly drawn and not particularly interesting. In the hands of any other actor, the movie may very well have fallen flat. But Hawke gives it everything he has, and what should be a two dimensional caricature is vividly brought to life by the sheer force of Hawke’s talent.
As good as Hawke is, the real star of the movie is director of photography Chris Norr, who gives the 8mm snuff films a faded, autumnal look that will haunt you for days afterward.
We still have another week to go before the debut of Paranormal Activity 4, but it’s probably safe to say at this point that Sinister is the best horror movie of the year.