Sinister is categorized as a “snuff” film, which means that we’re going in with the knowledge that one or more people are going to die, on screen. That too in a brutal manner, otherwise there’s no horror element. Given the expectation the “art” remains in the style of depiction, plot intrigue and character tension.
Sinister is about a successful true-crime novelist who has fallen on financially bad times. He’s banking on his current novel to be a massive hit and is desperate to make it work. Pursuing a mass homicide story he moves along his family, directly into the house where a murder took place. During his research, he discovers old video tapes that depict various mass murders which only makes him more interested and further entangled in the story of the house. Slowly, weird things start to happen all around the house which start to spook him and his family. On revisiting the tapes he discovers a pagan deity called “Bughuul” that is responsible for all these killings. Meanwhile, one of his kids is seeing the ghosts of the kids who were possessed in the past. By the time he discovers the haunting, one of his kids is already possessed. The film ends with the kid murdering the entire family in brutal manner similar to that in the tapes. She is then also kidnapped by “Bughuul” joins the rest of the ghost kids.
There are a few moments where the film stands out in terms of originality. Particularly amusing is the scene where we see Bughuul standing inside the swimming pool watching an entire family being drowned and then looking directly into the viewer’s eyes. The video tape that shows a family on the gallows and then later also shows Bughuul in the background is also interesting, though feels a bit overused later on.
There is also undue relies on jump scares in a few places. Some are vanilla hide-and-seek ones, while others are more involved but have no real payoff. The heavy symbolism of the scorpion also has no real bearing on the plot and only confuses the audience further. We also see the police deputy get involved in the novelist’s research, but later on do nothing but simply foretell the fate of the family. The “expert” on symbology also serves as an information dump about the folklore behind the haunting. The film makes no attempts at revealing this information organically through the plot. The argument between the novelist and his wife towards the end of the second act is dropped in to make the family look less one dimensional. It doesn’t amount to much as the family is hurtling towards their doom in the very next moments.
Some supernatural effects are purely for the audience’s sake and are never even noticed by the characters, making them feel very gimmicky. An example of this is when Bughuul starts to move in a still photograph on screen, when the characters are looking away. One could say that it builds tension for the viewer, but the actual effect has no impact on the plot, so it is inconsequential.
The film has all the right ingredients, but does less with them than it could have. It could’ve left the audience harrowed and scared to death, instead it chooses to leave us only slightly worried.