Horror flick promises 'sinister' scares

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Photo Courtesy of Alliance Films.

Found footage is a genre that’s always been problematic, and this year, the idea of casting your camera as a character in a narrative has extended beyond horror to comedies (“Project X”) and even superhero films (“Chronicle”). “Sinister” takes a more interesting approach, playing out the implications of what happens when you’re the one who finds said footage, and it makes for a Halloween treat — a rare horror film that manages to actually scare.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true-crime writer struggling to keep himself from being defined as a one-hit wonder. In pursuit of his next great true story, he moves his family across the country to the home where another family was killed. When Ellison  finds a box of film reels in the attic, he uncovers a series of murders similar to the ones he’s investigating, all committed by a shadowy white figure nicknamed Mr. Boogie.

Director Scott Derrickson’s last major excursion into the horror genre was “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” a courtroom drama masquerading as an “Exorcist” riff, and that film nailed its creepier scenes while fumbling the dramatics. “Sinister” is much more concerned with terrifying its audience than that film was, and does so much more effectively while still remaining interesting in quieter scenes. The film is full of exhilarating jump scares, and while many of them have been revealed in the film’s overindulgent trailer, lots of “Sinister’s” most harrowing images have been saved for the paying crowds.

“Sinister” is the screenwriting debut for local film blogger C. Robert Cargill, who co-wrote with Derrickson, and the collaboration proves to be fruitful. Films about writers always tend to have their creators’ habits and quirks in them, and “Sinister” does a great job capturing how difficult it can be to simply put pen to paper. Even more than that, it navigates some very dark material with finesse, crafting compelling characters that it puts into genuinely terrifying situations.

Hawke has the trickiest role here. Ellison is by no means likeable, and he deserves all of the pain he brings on himself by moving his family into the ill-fated house, but Hawke plays him with a beaten-not-broken charm and determination that makes it difficult to root against him. James Ransone (“The Wire”) plays a deputy that Ellison befriends, and their scenes together are refreshing, small bursts of comedic relief amidst the unrelenting darkness of the film. It’s a strong, noteworthy performance from the underrated Ransone, and his scenes with Hawke go a long way towards keeping Ellison on the right side of insufferable.

“Sinister” is also one of the only major horror films of the year that’s isn’t a sequel or a remake, but that’s not to say it’s terribly original. Mr. Boogie is an interesting creation, but the film’s concept isn’t far off from that of “The Ring,” and seasoned horrorphiles will probably be able to see where the film is going early on. However, a lot of the fun in “Sinister” is letting it lead you down the dark corridors of its haunted house, and no matter how predictable the film may be, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

New is always better with horror, and with the “Paranormal Activity” franchise starting to get a little creaky, it’s refreshing to see a well-written horror film in theaters. “Sinister” will not disappoint those looking for a few easy scares, but it’s a much smarter film than many will give it credit for. The film subtly deals with what horror film viewers have defined themselves to be, a feat that few horror movies seem able to access. In October, the lack of good horror is especially glaring, and “Sinister” is a pleasant surprise, a likeable and gripping flick that’s not for the nightmare-prone.

Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: 'Sinister' predictable, still scary