Every year, at least one horror movie seems to come out of nowhere and surprise both horror fans and Hollywood alike. But so far, despite a wealth of new contenders in 2012, none have stood out. So that's partly what makes this week's "Sinister" so refreshing; lowered bar or not, it's been a while since we've seen a horror movie as genuinely creepy as the new semi-found footage thriller from "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" director Scott Derrickson.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime novelist who moves his family into the former home of his latest subjects: a murdered family whose killer was never found. So, in other words, not exactly a candidate for "#1 Dad." But the spooky stuff really gets going when Ellison stumbles across a box of Super 8 "home movies" showing a series of disturbing, unexplained murders -- including the one that took place in the Oswalt's new backyard.
After receiving good marks from critics, "Sinister" certainly looks like a strong candidate for 2012's breakout horror movie. So to help audiences decide whether it makes the cut, I've broken down how well the film handles some classic horror movie elements.
The evil spirit: Our second ancient boogieman/eater of children's souls of the year (after "The Apparition"), Bughuul, or "Mr. Boogie" as he's more affectionately known, is appropriately menacing, a supernatural force that acts more like a traditional serial killer -- though I'll admit it's a little odd for a ghost to make a director's cut of his hauntings, and that he's a Super 8 aficionado. (You have to wonder if J.J. Abrams at least crossed Ellison's mind as a potential suspect.) That Mr. Boogie's predisposed to pop up where you least expect him, however, is scary as hell. That his makeup looks like Brandon Lee's from "The Crow" isn't.
Creepy kids: A bona fide horror staple, this one understandably gives the movie the most trouble. With their lifeless faces and annoying habit of shushing people, these kids aren't exactly "Shining" Twins-level scary. And so neither is the game of undead Red Light/Green Light they play with Ellison. Sorry "Sinister."
Horror dad: Blame Stephen King, but it seems like there's an inordinate amount of tortured authors in horror movies. Granted, Hawke's Ellison doesn't come close to Jack Nicholson's infamously obsessive novelist from "The Shining." But while it's no haunted hotel, we'd have to agree with the local sheriff that moving your family into a house that was a crime scene just a few months ago is "in poor taste." Hawke, however, is "Sinister"'s strongest asset, lending some indie cred to the genre thriller and steadfastly refusing to phone the familiar horror dad role in.
The house: The Oswalt house is more or less your standard horror home, with all the requisite creepy, unexplained bumps in the night and shoddy attic floor construction. But those long, impossibly dark hallways are a definite plus. And Derrickson manages to make walking around in a pitch-black empty house a more nerve-wracking experience than I'd like to admit.
The found footage: We've seen a rash of found footage horror ever since "Paranormal Activity" (with #4 in that franchise coming out later this month). But "Sinister" gives the subgenre a clever spin, as Ellison uncovers a box of Super 8 "home movies" apparently left by the killer for him to find. The grainy snuff film footage is one of the most unsettling parts of the movie -- and by the last one, we don't want to watch it any more than Ellison does. And "Sinister" gets bonus points for the creepy double-entendre titles, like "Family Hanging Out," even if the idea of a Super 8-loving ancient demon admittedly sounds more ridiculous than terrifying.
Final Tally: While a lot of questions and potential plotholes pop up upon further reflection, at least initially, "Sinister" unfolds as a horror movie mystery, and one that's as fun as it is suspenseful and scary. It's no instant classic, but compared to the year's other horror offerings, that's enough to make "Sinister" seem downright inspired.
"Sinister" opens in theaters on October 12.