There are films which fizz with a malignant energy: Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012) is one of them. Its very narrative is spun around the idea of malevolent footage, in the form of a collection of horrific Super 8 home movies. These family vignettes transform inexorably into snuff films before the shocked gaze of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who stumbles across the cache in the course of researching a recent unsolved family murder.
As in the Ring films, the movies within this movie are imprinted with an indelible evil which will harm those who view them. Sinister heightens the audience’s dread by replaying the toxic fragments again and again, revealing a little more each time as Ellison rewinds and pauses in an attempt to discern an elusive killer. The deeper he delves, the more evil accretes. A hissing, throbbing, voodoo-inflected track sounds each time a film is played. This soundtrack complements and jars, its warped, upbeat fuzziness a fitting aural counterpart to the images onscreen. Together, these elements are responsible for Sinister‘s distinctive, abrasive texture—one of its defining features.
Sinister uses shocks sparingly, depending more on a sense of creeping unease. Time often feels slowed down, as in the home movies, or during a lyrical sequence towards the end of the film where Ellison walks down his hallway, shadowed in turn by a number of dead children. While its monster is depicted perhaps a little too explicitly, the film is generally too assured to succumb to horror cliché. Reflecting the experience of its main character, played with conviction by Hawke, this is an intensely focused, almost claustrophobic film. There’s no escape from these images.