I counted, ladies and gentlemen, and unless they swapped the entire film 180 degrees, I don’t think a single cast member in Sinister is left-handed. That sounds like bad joke, but I’m serious. I was so prepared to be underwhelmed by this horror thriller about a writer (sigh) neglecting his family (sigh) in a haunted house (double sigh), that that’s what I set out to do: emphasize the movie’s deficiencies with a single, stupid, pointless and archaic pun based on the title (which is, of course, Latin for “left-handed”).
So it was pleasantly surprising that Sinister turned out to be one of the scariest horror movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. So distracted was I by its quality storytelling, impressive cast of characters, spooky cinematography, effective use of comic relief (!) and its overwhelming sense of dread that I stopped checking for southpaws about halfway through the first act. Luckily for me, and my stupid, stupid jokes, by that point the entire cast of this intimate horror yarn had already been introduced and done something or other to prove their natural dexterity. Thus freeing me to enjoy Sinister in all of its spooky goodness.
The story is a simple one: Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime novelist whose latest attempt at greatness, after a single early success, leads him to move his family into the crime scene of his latest investigation, unbeknownst to his wife (Juliet Rylance) and his two children (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley). While putting away his belongings, he comes across a mysterious box in the attic containing old 8mm film reels and a still-functioning projector. That footage presents him with horrifying images of entire families being slaughtered simultaneously by an unseen figure. It also presents him with brief images of pagan symbols and a ubiquitous, eerie figure referred to in a child’s drawings only as “Mr. Boogie.”
Like those in many of the best horror movies, Ethan Hawke’s protagonist gets exactly what he asked for. So desperate is he to solve the crime himself that he neglects to show the footage to the police and digs deeper into the horrifying slaughter pattern all by himself, taking him into darker territory than he ever anticipated and teaching him a valuable lesson far too late to do him any good. He doesn’t even notice that “Mr. Boogie” seems to be looking back at him from his computer screen. Computers, it must be said, have never been scary in a motion picture before. Sinister bucks that trend by using the devices as a window to unsettling truths, and not just as a cure-all plot point generator.
Sinister also bucks the recent trend of found footage horror movies by focusing its story on… okay, on finding footage. But rather than ask audiences to be enraptured by the comings and goings of characters so self-possessed that they feel the need to film every single thing they do, Sinister focuses instead on the kind of person who would watch such terrifying film strips over and over again to uncover their mysteries, emphasizing the psychological damage that would accumulate in his mind over time. When the first effective comic relief character in a serious horror movie since… wow, I actually have no idea how to finish that thought… but when a police deputy played by the underappreciated James Ransone reacts to Hawke’s plight with both rationality and a simultaneous appreciation for the weight of the crimes at hand, yeah, we laugh, because his observations sound accurate despite his amusing delivery. But we’re never taken out of the film because the horror, as we have come to discover, is very, very real.
Through impeccable cinematography and confident pacing that allows whole sequences to play out in static takes, emphasizing the family’s isolation as well as the infinite voids in the corners of their environment, where you just know something horrible is hiding, Sinister stands out from the rest of its recent horror brethren. Sinister has the wherewithal to tell its story cleanly, without distraction, and with a level of class unfamiliar to mainstream horror cinema these days, and the ending, at the risk of using impenetrably technical jargon, does not puss out on us. This is the kind of horror movie we were afraid they weren’t going to make anymore, and apparently it took a whole bunch of “righties” to do it. Oh well. When a movie’s sincerely good, who cares about irony…?