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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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"Sinister" is in theaters now.
"Sinister" is in theaters now.

Dark, subdued "Sinister" brings the scary

Part mystery and part horror movie, "Sinister" has been teasing scary movie fans with intriguingly vague trailers for a while now – its shadowy villain has certainly gotten people talking. While it's nothing to write home about plot-wise, the scares in "Sinister" are certainly enough to make you think twice about turning your lights off before going to bed.

The movie starts off predictably: Former big-shot true crime writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke) packs up his family in search of another blockbuster unsolved mystery. Taking the first of many risks with his wife and two children, he moves into a home that was also the recent scene of four hangings and the disappearance of a young girl. The discovery of a mysterious box of old film reels in the attic leads Ellison to believe he's stumbled onto a monumental piece of new evidence that could potentially make his latest project his biggest yet.

He's only half right: the films unlock the secrets behind the gruesome events that happened in the house, but they also awaken the mysterious force that caused them.

In between the past mysteries and present jump scares that have suddenly descended upon the house, "Sinister" takes the time to expand upon the family's story and their own internal conflicts. They're not particularly original, but the movie does go into more detail with their lives and even extends their troubles (the wife's concern for the kids, the son acting out at school) through most of the movie. It's a slightly more realistic take on the usual Horror Movie Family, which usually only gets screen time for the first third of the film at most before it diverts all attention to the supernatural baddie.

As with most horror movies, "Sinister" lays the spooky music on thick. The industrial soundtrack they use isn't awful (its static-y tech sound is almost reminiscent of the old-school film projector that factors into the plot so importantly), but it gets introduced too soon and seems out of place right at the beginning of the action. And yes, the familiar bursts of sound that accompany the more shocking moments are thrown in liberally.

Alternatively, the cinematography does a consistently great job of keeping the audience unnerved and on its toes. Numerous off-center shots give both the main characters and the house's shadowy corners equal screen time – it's a slick, subconscious way of suggesting things aren't quite right, but it can also be a tip-off to viewers to beware of creepy background movement or sneak attacks. Here, however, those tactics are used so sparingly that the audience takes on a constant feeling of weary paranoia. It's that psychological aspect that makes "Sinister" even more, well, sinister – when the scares do escalate, they're all the more terrifying because they have the control.

"Sinister" is not without the classic horror movie faults (There are at least two jump scares that, looking back on them, I can't help but laugh at), but it handles them much better than its genre's typical fare. And, it twists in a fair amount of original elements that offer up legitimately creepy moments. It balances its found-footage gore and modern-day psychological thrills successfully, making the end result a solid – albeit not perfect – horror movie.

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