“Sinister” on Halloween: Found-Footage Horror Can Still be Scary

We see a family of four with hoods over their heads and nooses around their necks. A branch on the other side of the tree gets cut by something out of frame, and when it falls it lifts the family off the ground. They kick in slow motion. Their kicks slow. They die.

“Sinister.” The title pops onto the screen in a scratchy, creepy font. Two minutes in, this is already a pretty cool movie. Watching people slowly hang to death is disturbing.

An egomaniac true-crime writer played by Ethan Hawke moves his family into the house. He wants to figure out what happened, and what happened to the vanished fifth member of this hanged family. Hawke assures his wife they are not living down the street from a crime scene, which is technically true since the family hanged in their backyard. (Lies will eat your soul.) The writer finds a box full of 8 mm movies in the attic. When he cues them up, he sees other families get horribly killed.

“Sinister” has this meta-ness that enhances the extreme scares. We’ve seen so many movies like “Paranormal Activity,” where the action is meant to appear live, filmed in real-time by the victims of some demon. Hawke’s character watches these mini “Paranormal” movies, made by the demon itself in these cases, and we watch him watch them. He gets freaked out and starts to drink and smoke. The flims go back decades, and they always show some nice, attractive family enjoying each other. Then the reels cut suddenly to their horrible murder. They’re tied down in a car which then bursts into flames. They’re tied to a bed and then have their throats cut. They’re tied to lounge chairs that get dragged into a public pool. A woman’s feet kick horribly as the rest of her body is unable to escape and get her head back above water. Then they stop.

These death scenes, caught on grainy film, are horribly realistic looking. (I cannot imagine a more terrifying lawnmower scene would even be possible than what’s pulled off in one of these mini killing movies in “Sinister.”) What’s causing them? Who is the killer? The Bughuul, a Pagan deity who eats children and prefers the extended cuts of horror films.

Ethan Hawke is a great actor, and it is more scary watching a great actor get scared than watching a bad actor get scared. In “Sinister,” his character slowly unravels in that way we watched Jack Nicholson slowly unravel in “The Shining.” He is on to the story of his career, and he knows it. He hides the grainy films from everyone else, fearing police intervention would ruin his shot at an “In Cold Blood”-like true-crime masterpiece. But what he’s watching is too disturbing, and after a while he begins to spend nights chasing thumps and groans and something else in his attic. His face gets twitchy and his kids start acting crazy.

Bughuul, eater of children. If you saw the great movie “Drag Me To Hell” a couple years ago, you know how fantastic Pagan demons can be as bad guys. In that film, it was the Lamia, summoned by gypsies to exact revenge on oppressive, profit-minded banking executives. These demons delight in terrorizing their victims as they dance back and forth between our world and theirs.

I loved “Sinister.” Hawke’s character is not a good person, and while I won’t give away the ending I will say that it’s mean as hell. This flick, like “Drag Me To Hell,” is refreshing in that is has a beginning, a middle and an end. It isn’t setting up sequels; it just wants to stand alone as a cool, creepy horror movie.

There was a trailer for “Paranormal Activity 4” before the flick. The first time they made one of those movies, it was new and clever and scary. Now it’s just stupid. And boring. Those films are supposed to seem real because of their found-footage gimmick, where everything’s captured on cameras set up by the characters. The problem is they actually feel more fake after you’ve watched the same trick enough times.

“Sinister” has a new take on found-footage. It puts a great actor in front of gorier found-footage clips than anything you’ll see in “Blair Witch” or “Paranormal Activity,” and they drive him insane. Maybe the “Paranormal” producers should summon a Bughuul to direct Part 5.

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