Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a "true crime" author. He details the events of famous unsolved cases or cases with distorted conclusions in hopes of uncovering a greater truth or solving a long-standing mystery. His last book, Kentucky Blood, earned him a reputation for daring, flying in the face of the police, and even going so far as to move his family into a house that was a crime scene to get the story.
At the beginning of Sinister, Ellison, his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter and budding painter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) are moving into a new home in St. Louis, Mo. where the case of a missing girl, Stephanie Stephanson, has sprung up on the Ellison's radar. The new locale offers a possible avenue for a new book and a revitalization of Ellison’s waning career as an author. (He often gets drunk and watches old tapes of his own interviews from nearly a decade ago.) "This could be my In Cold Blood," he tells his doubtful wife. As horror movies are so wont to do, though, Ellison gets more than he bargained for. This is more like his very own Cujo.
While unpacking boxes in the new house's rickety attic, Ellison discovers a box of Super 8 tapes with sardonic titles like Hanging Around, Pool Party and Family BBQ. The films depict a hanging, a drowning and a fiery execution, respectively. Present in all three tapes is a ghoulish figure known as "Mr. Boogie" standing in the background in a mask not unlike that worn by a member of the band Slipknot. Ellison learns that these executions all took place in houses in the St. Louis area, and his suspicions that his family may be next are confirmed when he sees the Boogie lurking outside his house, his son's night terrors become increasingly violent, and his daughter starts painting images from the tapes on her wall.
Sinister arouses in me a certain suspicion I have about the way we watch horror movies. How often do we ever wonder whether the tormented characters deserve what they get? Ellison brings his family into the belly of the beast and persists in the face of imminent danger even after his family protests. This is similar to what many heroes in blockbusters do — but those guys get the girl in the end and stop Evil Bad Guy Man from obtaining the Energy Cube of Danger. Ellison makes it clear that he'll do just about anything to regain his former glory as a star author, so who's to say paranormal doom isn't something he deserves for his selfishness?
It’s thought-provoking questions like this that make Sinister a terrific horror film. It doesn't substitute cheap scares for story, and at the heart of all the supernatural turmoil is a human story trussed by family drama: a failing marriage, a dying career, irksome children.
Sinister brings to mind last year's Insidious — the mercurial temperament of a family, the oncoming threat of some otherworldly danger, the single-adjective title. Sinister is a better movie, though, thanks largely to its attention to detail, methodical commitment to building a realistic world in which to cause disaster, Hawke's superb performance and a welcome sense of humor.