There are many movies about haunted houses, and a lot of them start the same way Sinister does. How they decide to shape that haunted house story is what can make or break them; if the audience is presented with the same themes or the same plot elements over and over again, they're probably not going to be receptive to the film unless the hauntings themselves are truly groundbreaking. But Sinister doesn't really stick to a forumlaic pattern; it uses the new family moving into an old house routine as a framework for something refreshingly different.
Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is a writer struggling to find his next breakout nonfiction story. He's written about true crime before, uncovering facts about a police case that put his book on the bestseller list, but over the years his fame has slowly petered out. Now he's on the hunt for another true crime case, and this time he doesn't move down the street from the scene of the crime but instead he decides to live in the house where it happened. The cases are Charles Manson-esque at first; the killer leaves super 8 film in the house's attic, and the witty titles of these home videos only suggest the horrifying murders that Ellison will find on the film.
The home movies of Sinister are the real winners; every one is terrifying in its own right, with clever use of the grainy super 8 footage to make the snuff videos seem real. There is some disgusting footage on the reels, and Sinister does a fantastic job making the events worse by slowly piecing the footage together over time.
But these moments are also lessened by the annoyingly cloying background music; someone had a fun time playing with loops and percussion and droning instruments, and in their own right the music is atmospheric, but it's too loud in the mix. The tension of the home movies comes from the slow pace of the films, not the overbearing soundtrack, and these moments would best be suited if they were left with no music at all.
Sinister has some genuinely startling moments, especially during Ellison's slow uncovering of terrible murders. Yet as the film progresses through its (somewhat unnecessary) two hour running time, the scares begin to get more explicit. Things that used to go just bump in the night are now shown in their entirety; the ghosts come out to play, and one scene in particular that's meant to be scary just comes off like a goofy contemporary dance.
The eerieness of Sinister eventually drops out entirely after the ghosts become more visible; the ending, while meant as a gory and natural conclusion, reminds me of a Slipknot music video. It's all in slow motion, and even Mr. Boogie (Bagul, the demon who consumes children) has stringy hair and wears a mask.
I haven't even mentioned the Apple product placement that runs rampant throughout the film.
Sinister is a perfect example of what happens when a film decides to show everything instead of just hinting at it. The initial creepiness of the film, produced by eerie home videos and house creaks and groans, devolve into spook scares with unscary ghosts and overt attempts at violence. Towards the end the film - which I enjoyed thoroughly in its first act or two - tries too hard to scare the audience, and the ghosts become anything but the sinister apparitions they're supposed to be.
Sinister on Rotten Tomatoes