I haven't been this spooked for years! Demons, killings and unbearable tension – our critic was left whimpering by Sinister
01:25 GMT, 5 October 2012
Sinister does everything right. It’s a refreshing change to see a horror film that visits familiar themes — a haunted house, found footage and ritualistic murders — and puts a new spin on them that’s genuinely terrifying.
Elements are strongly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and there are echoes, too, of such superior shockers as Halloween and The Ring. If you care to be scared, this should be a highlight of your movie-going year.
If you don’t like films that may give you nightmares, don’t go.
Video nasty: Ethan Hawke stars in Sinister, one of the most horrifying films of recent times and gives a heartfelt performance
Ethan Hawke gives one of his most heartfelt performances as Ellison Oswalt, a struggling writer of true crime books who is desperate for the cash and kudos of a hit.
He’s decided to write about the unsolved killing of a seemingly normal family. The smallest child was abducted, never to be seen again, and the other four, including mum and dad, were hanged from a tree in the back garden.
Ill-advisedly, Ellison does more than research his new project. He moves his own family into the house where the murders took place. Not surprisingly, it’s going cheap.
It’s a bungalow with an attic, and spookier noises come out of that than ever there were in The Exorcist.
He discovers a box up there containing home movies and a Super 8 projector, but when he plays the innocuously named reels he discovers they are snuff movies chronicling the murders of five families over the past 50 years.
Linking the footage are an occult symbol and a hooded, white-faced figure who lingers menacingly in the grainy background, like an even spookier Michael Jackson.
At this point, any normal person would go to the police; but our author decides — not without foundation — that the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is lazy and incompetent. Ellison also needs to hit the literary jackpot to feed his ego and because he fears his wife may leave him.
So he sets about trying to solve the mystery himself, with the help of the sheriff’s deputy (James Ransone), a doting fan of Ellison’s one and only hit, written ten years previously.
The plot of Sinister revolves around Hawke's character Ellison Oswalt uncovering a box in an attic containing snuff movies chronicling the murders of five families over 50 years
Ellison is sure he’s on the trail of a serial killer, even though he’s put in touch with an expert on the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has unnerving stories to tell about a Babylonian demon called Bagul, who doesn’t feed on bagels.
Like every intellectual in the movies, Ellison is reluctant to believe in the supernatural. It’s a tribute to Hawke that he makes Ellison’s borderline-loony choices understandable.
British actress Juliet Rylance —playing Ellison’s wife — reacts with credible fury when she realises what her husband is up to.
Good work is also done by Michael Hall D’Addario as their 12-year-old son, susceptible to night terrors (and why not, in this house), and Clare Foley as the couple’s small, artistic daughter, Ashley, who not only sees dead people but draws them on the walls.
Bumps and noises in the night take on a fearsome intensity, aided by Christopher Young’s nerve-jangling, electronic score.
Clare Foley does a good turn as the couple's daughter Ashley, who can see the dead and paint them on the walls
For much of the movie, we’re uncertain how much is real, and how much is happening inside Ellison’s obsessive, drink-sozzled head. His investigations consistently lead him in unexpected directions, and the twist ending — while not entirely unpredictable — is genuinely horrifying.
Horror fans who demand the explicit gore of Saw or Hostel may be disappointed, but even so this is not for the faint-hearted. Where the film works very well is in making us suffer along with the Oswalts.
Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson was responsible for the atrocious Keanu Reeves blockbuster The Day The Earth Stood Still, but returns here to the low-budget approach he used in the moderately successful The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. He is rightly confident working on a smaller, more human scale. He knows how to build tension and terror, and gives us welcome comic relief in the scenes between Ellison and the local lawmen.
Horror is not for everyone, but the best in the genre can explore our deepest fears in ways that no other kind of movie can. Cabin In The Woods remains the cleverest horror film of this year, but for sheer scariness it’s surpassed by Sinister.
Compelling and with a superbly crafted script, cinematography and editing, this is the most frightening movie since The Ring, way back in 1998.