Quite a few horror films riff off other horror films – indeed, it’s a relatively common approach in many genres, with Rio Bravo inspired by/kicking against High Noon or The League of Gentlemen riffing on The Killing. The pitch for Sinister rose out of looking at a bunch of found footage films and wondering what happens to the guy who finds the footage. A small cycle of films – including the French Ils and the American Strangers movies – have depicted masked kid pranksters terrorising and killing innocents in isolated homes. Writers Matthew Abrams and Padgett Arango here lift the masks and show what those teenage spree-killers are like in the aftermath of a double murder, while working up to their next killing jaunt (on Halloween, yet), coping with the practicalities of victim selection and pre-planning, then just trying to get through the night when things inevitably go wrong.
The tone isn’t as bluntly satiric as Tragedy Girls or Assassination Nation, but it’s also unquestionably a meta slasher movie rather than a study of teenage anomie leading to mass murder a la Elephant – it feels sometimes a little like a less jokey take on Behind the Mask: The Leslie Vernon Story, but with a group of killers who have their own dysfunctional dynamic working against any happy outcome for anyone. We never find out why this quartet of straight-seeming, reasonably intelligent kids picked this hobby, or even what particular thrill they get out of it … but tensions arise between brothers Ian (Spencer Macpherson) and Derek (Keenan Tracy), who are respectively in favour of meticulous pre-planning and goofy improvisation, while the studious Miriam (Brittany Raymond) would like to knock the whole thing on the head not on any moral grounds but because she’s got academic work to do and thinks they’re pushing their luck and neglected rich kid Jenny (Brittany Teo) is the most obviously into the sadism of it all and the only one with stereotypically absent, neglectful parents. The brothers’ Dad is the town cop (Luke Goss) and Miriam’s parents are overly nice liberals, and the community is closer to the idealised, dark-secret-nurturing small towns of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm St than the swarming human anthills of most social media-influenced descendents of Massacre at Central High.
It rather underplays its horrors, keeping its moral vacuum lead characters at a distance, but does tell a typical stalk-menace-slash story from the POV of the killers rather than the victims. The kids have problems carrying out their kills, and the plot of the film has events escalating out of their control – and, inevitably, the horror coming home with them. The leads are all good, and bravely don’t try any special pleading on behalf of the murderers and director Ray Xue manages to work up some suspense about their eventual fates. Spoiler – nothing good comes of it.