Creepy children, innocents turned evil, innocents in danger, the voyeurism of found footage, the mental unraveling of the obsessive investigator, the house with the dark secret – The Exorcism Of Emily Rose and The Day The Earth Stood Still director Scott Derrickson is clearly able when it comes to cherry-picking the best devices possible from horror’s long and varied canon, although with the influence of The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist looming so large, it’s no surprise that Derrickson was originally attached to MGM’s remake of the latter – now in the capable hands of Sam Raimi.
What all this pilfering amounts to, as we follow increasingly troubled true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) around his darkened house (even in daylight the windows seem small and the shadows long), investigating a murder that took place there umpteen years ago with the help of a case of gristly Super 8 reels documenting not only the collective hanging of this particular family, but a series of other mass murders stretching back to the Sixties, is five stars of atmosphere piling gracelessly and abruptly into two stars of pay-off.
The lingering teases of the mysterious ethereal figure in the footage (a child-stealing demon who lives in pictures, sarcastic spoiler alert) far more effective when we’re left to guess, than when we’re force-fed exposition by a helpful occult specialist (Vincent D’Onofrio) via Happy Shopper Skype, and the final glaring obviously plot twist is helpfully spelt out by an idiot facsimileing of Scream‘s gormless Deputy Dewey.
Until we get there though, Sinister is a nerve-shattering ordeal – as much at home as it is in the darkness of the multiplex – thanks to the invasive framing of the shots, as we steadicam cautiously around the house investigating strange noises as an accomplice to the twitchy Ellison. A fantastic performance from Hawke, who reaches chilling lows of vulnerable, sweaty desperation, and his two on-screen kids played by Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario keep the tension wound tighter than piano wire.
Special mention has to go to the sound design, with each of the Super 8 reels accompanied by its own theme tune of sorts, plucked from the darkest corners of abrasive ambient music (it’s no coincidence that the demonic antagonist has a sort of black metal feel to him, lampshaded by a needless line from the convenient occultist), that gives each segment such an all-pervasive sense of unease that were it maintained would make Sinister every bit as terrifying as that first encounter with The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror or Paranormal Activity.