Just when you think the whole shakicam subgenre has come to its natural end, ‘found footage’ finds a way to haunt its viewers (both internal and external) afresh. Like Lovely Molly before it, Sinister does not comprise first-person footage alone, but rather includes some ‘home movies’ within its more conventional ‘objective’ camerawork. In this way, it makes the preserved medium of film itself a reflex for the ghostly entities that (maybe) inhabit its story, as though to suggest that merely watching this ‘moving picture’ (which begins – and ends – with a family moving house) may be enough to entrap anyone with their eyes on those flickery images, leaving no possibility of escape.
Over a decade ago, Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) hit the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for a true crime book – and ever since he has been vainly trying to repeat this success, even as his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) would prefer him to focus more on his family life with son Trevor and daughter Ashley. Following a horrific case in which four members of a family were hanged from a tree in their own garden (while the youngest daughter vanished without trace), Ellison moves into their Pennsylvania house to research the story, not letting on to his own family that their new home is the very location of this murder spree.
Discovering in the attic a box of Super 8 reels with a projector, Ellison sets up a theatre in his office, and quickly realises that every reel records a different domestic slaying, widely separated by time and geography but connected in other ways. Horrified by these eerie films but also excited by the prospect of a new, lucrative publication, Ellison starts working – and drinking – late into the night until, disturbed both by strange happenings in the house and hidden images in the reels, he becomes gradually convinced that the pagan cult of child-eating demon Bughuul may be behind the killings, with his own family next in line.
As with his previous horror film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, director/co-writer Scott Derrickson plays upon the conflict between rationalism and the supernatural, and if once again the devil gets all the best tunes (realised with some astonishingly creepy sound design), this time the hot potato of Christian faith is removed from the equation. Far more attention is paid to the mental fragmentation of the protagonist, who, with his reprehensible mendacity, alcoholism, obsessive work ethic and neglect of loved ones, not to mention his habit of haunting the house’s corridors by night with a baseball bat or kitchen knife, seems a Jack Torrance in the making.
Indeed, Sinister is constructed around repetitions – not just the knowing echoes of previous family psychochillers, but also the bizarre serial nature of the murders themselves, immortalised in that boxed row of similar-looking film cans. Yet if you think you have seen it all before, the terrifying meta-filmic lesson here is that watching can in itself be dangerous, even deadly.
And yet there we are, peepers wide open, staring at the screen (and the screen within the screen), ignoring all the warning signs, watching someone watching horror and reaping the awful, inevitable consequences, one way or another, of curiosity. It is an ingeniously plotted film, luring us along with Ellison into its ineluctable trajectory, before leaving us to stare, eyes agape, at our own complicity in the taking of innocence.
Look at the evil in the centre of this film, and it looks unblinkingly right back at you. Just as well, then, that there are enough mounting tensions and jolting jumpshocks here to have many viewers averting their eyes in sheer fright.