Do you want a horror movie that will prickle the hairs on your body? Or one that will have you watching between closed fingers? It would sound like hacky hyperbole, but “Sinister” is that film, and it’s one of the freakiest, most effectively disquieting scare machines in ages that lives up to its diabolical title and honorably scares the hell out of you. “Sinister” has the stuff nightmares are made of.
Coming off of his best-seller “Kentucky Blood,” true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a Pennsylvania ranch home to write his next work of nonfiction. Unbeknownst to his English wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids, 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and 8-year-old Ashley (Clare Foley), they got the property so cheap because it’s the former crime-scene house of an unsolved murder. Not long after they unpack, Ellison gets to work and finds a box of old film reels in the attic. As he watches the Super-8 home movies of the last family that lived in the house circa 1968, he begins to realize that they were shot by someone elseâ€”a ritualistic killer. A reel titled “Hanging Out” ends with the family, in burlap hoods, hanging from a tree in the Oswalts’ new backyard; another, “Sleepy Time,” depicts family members having their throats slit in bed; the third, “BBQ,” is an immolation in a car; and the last, “Pool Party,” shows each family member pulled in to drown, as well as a mysterious figure with a demonic face at the bottom of the pool. As Ellison investigates further, he finds the same figure in each murder video, as well as a painted occult symbol, and one child from each family seems to be missing. How are these murders connected, and is Ellison’s family next in a chain of serial murders?
For a film like this to work, one must give in to that little thing called suspension of disbelief. When the unfriendly sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) suggests Ellison and his family leave and not turn back, you know they should just get the hell out of Dodge but won’t. Also, there are several instances where Ellison walks a fine line between bravery and stupidity when investigating creaking in the attic at night or getting out of bed when hearing the projector turn on by itself, however, we wouldn’t have a scary movie otherwise.
Hawke is our entry point into the story, his eyes being ours. In a ratty cardigan and glasses, the actor convincingly essays the part of an author who prides himself on not writing another book for the fame and money but for the justice of the murdered parties. He becomes so engrossed in his work, which goes down easiest with a bottle of scotch, that he grows distant from his own family. Retaining her homeland accent, Rylance naturally plays Tracy as a supportive wife who respects her husband’s work but doesn’t want her children to be exposed to the unpleasant nature of it. The director allows both Hawkes and Rylance enough time to establish a couple worth caring about. Vincent D’Onofrio also pops up as Professor Jonas, an expert in the occult who communicates with Ellison via Skype about his findings.
Right off the bat, the opening image of the former family’s fate disturbs. The snuff home videos themselves (with non-diegetic sounds of chanting and mood music to boot) feel so real and are so depraved and genuinely disturbing Ã la 1986’s “Manhunter.” Raising the rattling level of dread to the rafters, “Sinister” isn’t writer-director Scott Derrickson’s first rodeo at telling a horror film and a compelling human-interest story, making his feature debut with 2005’s smart “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Co-writing the script with Ain’t It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill, he builds the film slowly, but stresses it with tension and a tangibly creepy mood, not to mention a handful of effective jumpy jolts, including a moving freeze-framed image and a photo recreating itself in the outside bushes. Christopher Young’s industrial score lends hefty contribution with edgy, unsettling beats. Derrickson is also assured in the power of suggestion, knowing just when to turn away from the grisly violence (a money shot reflected through Ellison’s glasses is a shrewd touch) and leave enough to the viewer’s imagination, with the instance of a lawnmower being used in the worst possible way. And kudos to the filmmaker for creating one of the most frightening boogeymen, known as Bughuul/Mr. Boogie, in recent memory.
As in 1972’s “The Last House on the Left,” we have some welcome comic relief from a police officer that leavens the terror at times, but this time, it doesn’t kill the ongoing chills. Here, the town deputy (James Ransome) not only wants an autographed copy of Ellison’s book but acknowledges that a snake (which Ellison finds in the attic) doesn’t have feet and that he would have never moved into a house with a murderous past.
“Sinister” is this year’s “The Amityville Horror,” but it’s far more maturely handled, expertly crafted, and classically moody than any low-rent horror flick as of late (here’s looking at you, “The Apparition”). While some horror films tend to derail when they begin paying everything off, “Sinister” doesn’t hold up to the closest of scrutiny in its mix of the supernatural and the unknown but takes us by surprise with a nasty, uncompromising finale. Without undermining itself, the film crawls under your skin and stays there until the credits roll. If you’ve soiled your pants, this unnerving, undeniably scary ride has done its job.
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B +