The great thing about Sinister is that it was described early on as a found footage movie, but that's not actually what it is. Instead of someone filming every move with a digital video camera, it's actually about finding footage! Ethan Hawke is Ellison, a true crime novelist who discovers some disturbing home movies in the attic of his new home, and the film is about the nature of that, er, found footage. I've been joking for years about making a movie about the guy who finds the footage for all these Paranormal Activity films (and assorted wannabes), but I'm lazy, so unless you steal my idea this is the closest we're going to come to it.
As a true crime buff of sorts (in that I've wasted more than one afternoon watching Unsolved Mysteries clips murders and disappearances and reading the similar Wikipedia pages), I totally dug the idea of centering a horror film around a guy like Hawke's character, who had a lot of success with a book called "Kentucky Blood" (which sounds like a Thin Blue Line type account of a botched police investigation), but his followup books haven't had much success, and they're moving to this new house because they can no longer afford the old one (which we see, briefly, and realize just how successful the book must have been - it's practically a mansion). Thus, like with Amityville and some others, there's a strong throughline of the stress brought on by financial hardship, and Hawke's obsession with delivering another bestseller goes beyond his ego - he's also a guy trying to provide for his family. At times Hawke can come off as a bit dickish, but understandably so, and he's a likable enough actor that he can coast a bit off that bond with the audience.
Also, he's discovering this case along with us, so we're never too far ahead or behind him. He's moved to this area in order to research an unsolved murder of a family that lived there, but he discovers that they might just be the latest victims of a serial killer that has been operating since the '60s. Every few scenes brings another revelation, and I wouldn't dream of revealing more than I already have, but suffice to say I would advise skipping the trailer, because the joy of discovery is part of the fun, and also what gives the film much of its power - rarely has a "this goes much deeper than you initially believed" type plot been paced so well, perfectly balancing the plot driven (read: somewhat talky) scenes with the scares.
Oh yes, the scares. If you've read enough of my reviews, or just know me, you'd know that I don't scare easily (which makes it kind of funny that I've written over 2000 horror movie reviews - who the fuck am I to tell you what movies to watch when I don't find them scary?) but I got two or three good jolts out of this one, which is two or three more than normal. But even better than a good jump scare is being genuinely unnerved or creeped out, and that's where Sinister excels. It's a grim flick, but not a nihilistic one, which is a distinction I don't see often enough. Usually, especially of late, grim equals a bunch of folks being tied to chairs and taking blowtorches to the face or something, but there's actually very little on-screen violence in the film, with nearly all of it occurring on the super 8 videos he finds.
And that darkness has a balance, mostly courtesy of Deputy So And So, a character who is never given an actual name. He's a fan of Ellison and his books, and unlike the other local cops, is willing to assist him in digging up old records for research. He's not stupid, just sort of nervous and slightly naive, and provides some laughs in the film where they are most needed, but never so much that it starts to become a comedy. Hawke also gets a few subtly hilarious moments, particularly with regards to how much he has told his wife about their proximity to the murder scene he is researching.
Basically, it just works, dammit. The pace can get slightly "off" at times (Ellison finds a peculiar link between two of the murdered families and it's another hour before anyone follows up on it, for example), and the female lead apparently drops into a coma when she sleeps because she never seems to wake up when Ellison screams, crashes through the rotted attic floor, etc. But those are minor quibbles, and the pros far outweigh these tiny cons. It's a perfect October release, filled with scares and creepy moments, but R rated and more adult in nature than the other seasonal offerings (like Paranormal 4, also from Blumhouse). Plus, it's an ORIGINAL R rated horror movie coming out in October, which are even more rare. Out of the year's nearly 300 HMAD entries, this remains one of my favorites - hopefully that's a good enough pitch for you!