Sinister is a brilliant example of what horror films should be. It is quiet, claustrophobic and fundamentally creepy. It avoids the hacky-slash gore of movies like Saw and Hostel because it is no focused on making you vomit. It is focused on making you afraid of the dark. And it works.
So why does it work?
Great actors really help. Ethan Hawke hasn't been this good in years. Juliet Rylance plays his loving but not unrealistically supportive wife. But what makes this movie stand out is strong directing and (gasp!) strong writing. Imagine that in a horror film.
The film never bashes us upside the head with violence. All acts of violence as actually subtle, often done in complete silence. The real horror happens in our heads, not on the screen. The result, one man in the theater behind me said "I think I have to leave now". Another said "I completely just shit my pants."
There were a few cheap scares, the kind that make you jump out of your seat. But, without spoiling anything, the hardest part of the film to watch involves a lawn mower. I'm sure just saying that creates a ton of nasty images in your mind. And that's the point.
I had a great professor, Wanda Campbell (profile: Wanda Campbell) for several creative writing courses at the university of Windsor. My strongest memory of her it the reaction I received from a short story I'd written in the horror genre. I was trying to mimic the tone of Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Her response "this made me sick to my stomach".
At first I counted this as a win; my writing had an emotional impact on the reader. Then she schooled me, gently. She reminded me that the scariest of movies (Alien, Rosemary's Baby, etc.) do not take a sledgehammer to you head; instead they slither into your, quietly in the darkness. It is always much scarier to NOT see what you are afraid of.
Those fifteen minutes changed the way I wrote forever. So thank you to Professor Campbell for teaching me this and to the movie Sinister for reminding me.
Trailer: Sinister Trailer on Youtube
Sources: Information from IMBD: IMDB for Sinister