Sinister wasn't screened by WW press deadlines, but in the spirit of the spooking season, our critic has since braved Scott Derrickson's supernatural chiller.
Critic's Grade: B-
The most frustrating aspect of Sinister, the new ghost story from Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson, is how good it is. Were the film a standard Hollywood fright fest, it'd be easy to forgive Derrickson's reliance on tired horror cliches like the dad who keeps his kids in the house even as he's plagued by poltergeists and bloodthirsty dogs, or the endlessly screeching violins that augment every jump scare.
But Sinister is way better than that. It's an endlessly creepy horror film that refuses to relent even the slightest as it slowly builds to a grotesque climax made all the more horrifying by a setup that takes pains to let you know that nobody—children, chief among them—is safe from the evil that slowly percolates.
The film chronicles the unraveling of Ellison Oswalt (a terrific Ethan Hawke), a true-crime novelist who unknowingly moves his family to the former house of his latest subject: a young girl who went missing after her family was massacred. After coming across a stack of old Super 8 reels in the attic, he discovers that the murders are actually part of an interrelated series of gruesome cult rituals spanning decades. Things start to go bump. Ellison starts to go a little Jack Torrance.
All the while, Derrickson ratchets the tension through a series of gruesome flashbacks and disquieting encounters with the unknown, turning the screws of horror in an old-fashioned, Polanski-esque descent into dread. This is a film designed specifically to slowly draw viewers to the edge of their seats before backhanding them with shocking images and well-timed freakouts, and the terror's made all the more palpable by Hawke's vulnerable turn as the hero and Juliet Rylance's devastating portrayal of a wife stretched to her limits but still bound by love.
But for all those merits, Derrickson proves to be a filmmaker who lacks the confidence to forgo conventions entirely, and what prevents Sinister from ascending to greatness is the frustrating insistence on countering each slick move with a dumb one. So we've got a deeply layered and wise Hawke who refuses to take a box of snuff films to the cops out of pride and allows his kids to sleep even after being nearly killed in his home several times. There's also an over-reliance on loudly closing doors. By the time the requisite twist ending hits (one that you'll probably see coming from the 10-minute mark), there's a sense that maybe the director emptied his bag of tricks a little too soon. But damned if it isn't a deeply unsettling and terrifyingly entertaining ride before it plateaus into convention. AP KRYZA