For a genre that remains a Hollywood staple, horror doesn't get much respect. If a film isn't screened in advance for critics, it's usually a horror movie. Although they dominate Halloween, they're also the movies that get dumped at the deadest corners of the release calendar: January and late August/early September. They're filled with actors desperate for a paycheck or exposure. (Jennifer Lawrence's appearance in House at the End of the Street is a freaky-weird anomaly.) And, most importantly, there just aren't a lot of them lately that have been really good: Insidious, The Innkeeper, Let the Right One In/Let Me In, the Paranormal Activity movies, what else? (I'd say The Cabin in the Woods, but a lot of people either hated it or wouldn't consider it a "real" horror movie.) And yet Hollywood keeps making them, less concerned with their quality than if they'll make back their miniscule budgets.
Maybe that's why I'm so giddy about Sinister, which comes out on Friday and is one of the better horror movies of recent years. In a genre where everyone is looking for the next Saw or Paranormal Activity franchise, Sinister is just smartly done, definitely adhering to certain trendy gimmicks but put together with a care that makes a lot of its rivals look lazy by comparison. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, who previously made The Exorcism of Emily Rose and then went on to do that terrible The Day the Earth Stood Still remake. After watching Sinister, I hope he never leaves the horror genre again.
Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison, a true-crime novelist who had a hit book years ago—and a bunch of duds since. Hoping to rebound, he's moved his family to a house that was recently the scene of some grisly murders. The whole family was killed, except for a young daughter, who's still missing. Ellison figures if he gets to the bottom of what happened, he'll be a literary sensation all over again.
From the get-go, Sinister gives off a strong whiff of The Shining—haunted house, freaky kids, a main character who's a flailing writer—and it tips its hat (in a clever way) to the found-footage trend by having Ellison unearth a series of 8mm movies that the previous occupants left behind. Each home movie depicts a different family being killed, although at first there doesn't seem to be any apparent connection between them. (It's a little like the creepy video in The Ring, except watching it doesn't automatically mean that you're dead meat.) And so Ellison keeps watching, hoping to figure out some clues to the murders.
One of the toughest things about discussing horror movies is that the idea of what's scary is so subjective. For some, the gore of Saw is scary, while others get freaked out by zombies or pale Asian children. As a result, watching horror movies can become something of a tough-guy competition: If the movie doesn't scare you in a specific way, then it automatically isn't any good. Lately, horror directors seem to have caught on to this, enhancing their scare scenes with louder and louder sound cues to make damn sure you jump. God, does it get tedious.
Sinister does this a little bit as well—especially at one point where it's so egregious that I wanted to exit the theater, track down Derrickson, and scold him—but for the most part, it's a remarkably low-key affair. It creeps you out by hinting at the sorts of scares you're used to expecting and then not delivering them. (I can't remember the last time that a scene with open doorways in the background so unnerved me. Someone has to pop out of there eventually, right?)
Instead, Sinister is part psychological thriller and part character study, succeeding thanks to a cast that emotionally anchors the story. For all the mocking he receives for his pretentious air, Hawke has developed into a fine actor, terrific in everything from Training Day to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead to the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films. Of late, he's been quite good playing failed authors with delusions of grandeur: Between Sinister and this summer's little-seen The Woman in the Fifth, he's managed to make a clichéd character type both sympathetic and knowingly pathetic at the same time. It's a nifty trick Hawke pulls off, making you feel for Ellison's fear of failure and, at the same time, dislike him for bringing all this horror onto himself because of his damn ego. In Sinister, Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill (who used to write for Ain't It Cool News) balance solving the mystery and showing how far Ellison is willing to deceive his wife (Juliet Rylance) in order to write his book, and the performances are solid enough that you actually care about the unwitting hell Ellison is putting his wife and children through. (Even the kid actors, Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley, are better than your typical horror-movie tykes—they're allowed to do more than just scream and cry.)
But above all, Sinister is a superb example of tonal control. The shocks eventually come, but Derrickson teases them out in such a way that you're constantly uncomfortable. Even during the day—when bad things tend not to happen in horror movies—the inside of the house feels so dark that you're just waiting for the worst. And the use of the 8mm home movie footage is particularly clever. Though it calls to mind 8mm and Manhunter, by using a film format that evokes warm nostalgia for a bygone era, Sinister makes disturbing images pop because we're not used to seeing them presented quite this way. The movie works so well that the story's really clichéd bits—like introducing an arcane expert who basically explains to Ellison what's going on—are just slightly off in their rhythms, leaving you unsure exactly how they're going to play out. Hell, Sinister even manages to work in a character who's there just for comic relief—and it actually doesn't suck.
Like a lot of genre films, Sinister can't help but call to mind a bunch of other movies that came before it. So, yes, this isn't what you'd call a stunningly original film. So what? Too often, I go to horror movies hoping the characters won't be incredibly stupid and that the story won't be too riddled with plot holes. (That's such a low bar, and yet so few horror movies these days clear it.) I can happily report that everybody in Sinister is relatively intelligent and that the movie makes enough sense that its lingering questions afterward don't derail the experience. Everybody's different, so I can't guarantee it will terrify you. (Honestly, the movie's more freaky than truly frightening.) But forget judging Sinister as a horror movie: This is simply a darn good movie-movie that just so happens to have some scares in it. That's rare.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.