Soon after moving into a crime-scene house, true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) discovers a box in the attic innocently labeled "Home Movies" with several Super8 reels and a projector. Never mind how conveniently absurd it is to find such a thing inside a house that was probably already ransacked by the police. Never mind that next Ellison does an immensely stupid thing by keeping and watching the footage rather then turning it in to the authorities as possible evidence. Also, never mind that as soon as things start growing intensely creepy in a house where a family of four was hung from a tree in the backyard, Ellison wants to stick it out until he finishes what he hopes to be his next best-selling book.
Thinking logically and reasonably is not something we often find in a supernatural horror film like 'Sinister.' We watch and expect characters — even levelheaded, decently intelligent ones like Ellison — to make resoundingly stupid decisions in an environment that exists beyond our concrete understanding. Forget how the mysterious box got there. What matters is what each reel contains, which is footage of four more families being murdered in horribly sinister ways. The next obvious question is who's recording these gruesome crimes and why leave them lying around in the attic of an abandoned house? We eventually learn the answers, but the mystery eggs us on, along with the standard assortment of jump scares, implying something even more disturbing and sinister.
From a script by C. Robert Cargill, the story of Ellison researching the murders and their connections is really about obsession, about being engulfed by the terrible crimes and feeling unable to let go of the work while his family slowly falls apart. He's an author first, attempting to regain his former fame, before being a considerate husband and protective father. That obsession for solving the murders leads to an unforeseen desire to see more of the footage, to examine them further on a laptop and start printing photo copies. Ellison knows he should look away or simply stop altogether, but he can't seem to help himself. Similarly, neither can we. The depictions are shocking and grisly, but we want to see more. As the plot unfolds, we, too, become fixated by the footage, much in the same way we desire horror movies, graphic violence and all.
Hawke is fantastic as a non-fiction author whose fifteen-minutes of living in the spotlight are long gone. Ellison is a reasonably decent man that makes foolish decisions for the sake of his career, and Hawke, who's not particularly known for doing standard genre fare, portrays him with affable believability. With a wife (Juliet Rylance) who is extraordinarily understanding and supportive of her husband's goals, it would seem Ellison has more than enough to make him happy, but his preoccupation with regaining a past glory becomes his major flaw and the cause of his gradual unraveling. He asks for assistance from a local deputy (James Ransone) and professor (Vincent D'Onofrio), but he's in too deep and wants to uncover what happened to these families.
The plot shares many similarities to the VHS haunting of 'The Ring' (or 'Ringu' as some would much rather prefer), in that watching the twisted footage while bizarre, portentous music plays in the background can lead to some regrettable consequences. The film also relies heavily on typical gotcha scares and loud, creepy bumps in the night, but director Scott Derrickson, who also co-wrote and best remembered for directing 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose,' does splendidly behind the camera to make them work. With terrifically spooky and atmospheric cinematography by Chris Norr, 'Sinister' is an effective and skilled horror film that creates an intensely terrifying setting and overcomes conventional scare devices by also including an engaging story with characters we come to care for.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate and Summit Home Entertainment bring 'Sinister' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. With a shiny slipcover, the disc is housed inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, viewers can skip over several trailers before being greeted by an animated main menu with music in the background.
'Sinister' debuts on Blu-ray with a fantastic-looking, squeaky-clean 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Details are distinct throughout, except for a few, softer segments related to the photography. Of course, the 8mm sequences are the poorest of the whole film with thick, noticeable grain, but that's to be expected. The rest of the video is well-defined with fine, discrete lines in the foliage, exterior shots of the house and the furniture. We can clearly make out the tiniest object in the background and read every letter and word on Ellison's crime-solving board. Textures in clothing and facial complexions appear natural and lifelike with the smallest imperfection exposed.
The 2.40:1 frame is generally drenched in long, menacing shadows, most of the time taking place in the middle of the night. These poorly-lit segments, thankfully, maintain excellent visibility within the darkest portions. Blacks are inky rich and penetrating, providing the image with an appreciable cinematic quality that's often three-dimensional. Contrast is comfortably bright but a bit on the low side with brilliantly crisp whites, possibly meant to sustain a vibrant yet portentous feel. Colors are also bold and robust, particularly the greens in the grass and trees. The reds in the blood are pulsating and energetic while secondary hues are accurately rendered, providing the picture with warmth. On the whole, this is a striking, near-reference high-def presentation fans are sure to enjoy.
'Sinister' brings the scares with a fabulous DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which generates an effectively ominous environment. All manner of noises, bumps in the night and creaks of attic floorboards fill the room and echo throughout. Invisible tiny footsteps scurry above with fluid, flawless panning or dash from the front to the back with convincing realism, sending chills down the spine and giving goose bumps to the audience. The bizarre, disturbing score spreads into all seven speakers, enveloping the listener with a disquieting, terrifying soundfield. The tribal drumming music in the night scene where the family finally leaves the house is an awesome highlight worthy of repeat viewings.
A good chunk of the movie is character focused, so dialogue is well-prioritized and delivered with excellent intelligibility in the center. Movement between the front channels is smooth with exceptional fidelity and transparency, creating a wide and spacious soundstage. Being a horror flick with lots of piercingly loud jump-scares, the lossless mix exhibits superbly detailed clarity in the upper ranges and precise, well-balanced mids. The low-end is mostly reserved for the scariest sequences, but it's commanding and highly-responsive with a few ultra-low moments that satisfying while also providing the music with plenty of weight and authority. Overall, it's a wonderfully entertaining design which complements the movie marvelously.
With a strong lead performance by Ethan Hawke, 'Sinister' is a frightfully well-executed horror movie with several shocks and a spooky atmosphere. From director Scott Derrickson, the film is a conventional, standard affair, but he makes it work as a fun and wholly satisfying piece of entertainment. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent, near-reference audio/video presentation that generates a fearsome experience. Supplements are very light but fascinating nonetheless, making the overall package recommended for fans of the genre and a great rental for those in the mood to be scared out of their pants.