Sinister, which opens wide on Oct. 12, has a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this posting. Granted, it's early still, and only 20 reviews are in (notorious horror hater Roger Ebert has yet to weigh in), but the film is inspiring gushing notices. There's no question that Scott Derrickson's film is among the best horror films of the year, but that is faint praise because it's been a really shitty year for the genre.
As the self-awareness of our time dictates, Sinister is necessarily conversant with what came before it; the film is even particularly sharp and informed for a piece of horror cinema in 2012. Any horror movie that uses the found-footage/POV format (a la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity) is indebted to Ruggero Deodato's despicable/brilliant 1980 exploitation classic Cannibal Holocaust, but few are as faithful to that movie's format as Sinister. In Holocaust, the found footage is not the film itself, but a key part of it. It is a movie within a movie of an anthropological study that went belly up (and belly all over the place) that's then reviewed by other characters.
And so it is in Sinister, in which Ethan Hawke's struggling true-crime writer character Ellison moves his family into the house outside of which the family he's profiling was murdered. In the attic, he stumbles on a box of Super 8 reels that contain depictions of murders just slightly less clever than those you'd find in your average Saw movie. They have sardonically ghoulish titles like Pool Party '86 (in which people are duct taped to outside lounge chairs and then pushed into the nearby pool to drown) and Sleepy Time '98 (a family taped to their beds has their throats get slashed by the person holding the camera). As with the final half of Holocaust, in which the found footage is screened, these reels provide the most indelibly disturbing footage in the movie. It's not even the murders that are so fucked up – it's the footage that precedes the killings of the doomed families being watched through windows and trees that's almost sickening to behold. Derrickson is disgustingly good at depicting voyeurism.
It seems that someone's taking their love of snuff movies one step too far and that's great news for Ellison, who knows he's onto the biggest story of his career. "This could be my In Cold Blood!" he frantically tells his wife, even after things have gotten increasingly spookier for his clan and all signs point to, "Get out now." Ellison is desperate to be read, starving for a hit and running off the fumes of past glory – he watches VHS footage of himself making late-night rounds a decade before when his book Kentucky Blood was a cultural phenomenon. Subsequent offerings like Cold Denver Morning and Blood Diner failed to catch on. The titles just weren't sardonically ghoulish enough, I guess.
Ellison is soon made aware of a force that may be an even bigger attention whore than he is when an image that keeps popping up in the videos. We see traces of it and then a full-on clear freeze frame that causes the Super 8 film to catch aflame. But what is it, this Grim Reaper-esque figure that keeps showing his weird face in the footage? Is it a person in a mask? A black metal band member? The Saw puppet Billy? Unfortunately, the answer is a little too convenient (spoilerish hint: it's in the realm of the supernatural, where anything goes) and Sinister joins a growing list of movies this year whose setups have more rewards than their miniscule payoffs.
Lots of good ideas abound in Sinister, as do cool references – the entire movie could be read as a more hardcore take on The Ring and the deputy character is campily stilted enough in a movie that otherwise isn't to suggest Blue Velvet homage. But the parts outweigh the sum. It's almost like Sinister knows its genre a little too well and underwhelms as a matter of course.