Perhaps it's a lack of imagination on my part, but I cannot conceive of a trope more typical of the horror genre than the haunted house. In film and in literature, there exists a rich tradition of outwardly unblemished human habitats which the shadow of some ancient evil or recent violence has taken a secret shining to — and for good reason.
That darkness could impress itself upon a place, to play out again and again over the years on anyone who dares in their ignorance or their innocence to set foot in these sacred spaces... it's a powerful idea. One that we are immediately, even intimately familiar with, such that the haunted house requires only a slight suspension of disbelief on our part, and the most minute alterations to the classic narrative which invariably accompanies it can affect play in a major way.
Nowadays, however, we have haunted children, haunted hills, haunted histories and so on - hell, relatively recently I read and reviewed Michael Koryta's So Cold the River, which was about a haunted bottle of mineral water, if you can credit it - and with this expansion of horror's horizons, the archetypal haunted house has begun to look a little long in the tooth. I dare say there's life left in the old dog yet - see my high hopes for Adam Nevill's House of Small Shadows, coming Halloween 2013 - but give me a new idea over even an innovative spin on a predictable proposition any day of the week.
I don't know if Sinister represents a new idea, exactly - its core conceit, which is to say the haunted image (the haunted film, in fact) rather recalls Ringu - but at its best, it feels as fresh as it is ultimately familiar.
It's been a decade since true crime writer Ellison Oswalt had an actual hit on his hands, and with two point four children to support, he understands that there is but one last chance for literary lightning to strike twice. Failing that, a life of editing textbooks at best awaits. So motivated, our author, ably played by an edgy Ethan Hawke, uproots the Oswalts a final time. They move into a house which was recently the scene of a macabre multiple murder - the very uncanny hanging with which Sinister begins - though Ashley, Trevor and Tracy know little of this.
The weather seems to be with Ellison when, whilst unpacking, he comes across a box of home movies in the attic: Super 8 snuff films, after a fashion, documenting the deaths here in the Oswalt's new home — as well as a series of similarly sinister killings across the country. Sensing an extraordinary story, he opts to investigate them himself instead of alerting the proper authorities.
But when things begin to go bump in the night - when his son starts sleepwalking and his daughter takes to drawing pictures of the last tenants' little girl - Ellison realises that there may be more to these vile crimes than he had imagined, even in the darkest of his dreams.
Aside the miscasting of newcomer Juliet Rylance as Ellison's partner, who has little to do other than make ultimatums anyway, Sinister's actors are absolutely adequate. The kids aren't as central to the terror as you might suspect, given the genre, which is as well; it allows Hawke to shoulder most of the movie's most potent moments, and as aforementioned, he does so solidly. I hardly thought about his role in Dead Poets Society at all!
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Scott Derrickson directs. A fledgling filmmaker most notable, I suppose, for The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he also remade The Day the Earth Stood Still as a thankless Keanu Reeves vehicle, and developed the fifth Hellraiser film, Inferno. I'll say that he equips himself better here than he ever has in the past... but then poor direction has rarely been the ruin of his previous pictures.
Simply put, Sinister is blessed with a better script than the rest of Derrickson's efforts were, thanks to a screenplay co-written with C. Robert Cargill. If this unnerving experience is any sort of barometer for his impending debut - Dreams and Shadows, out in the US and the UK at the end of February - I expect smart, if not necessarily seamless modern horror.
The film is far from perfect, then, but I had a fair bit of fun with it. Neatly conceived, competently composed and respectably well executed, Sinister seems to me one of the strongest scary movies of recent years. You may interpret that phrase in any number of ways, so go knowing that it's more insidious than Insidious, and approximately ten times as interesting as The Possession.