Two trendlets of the mid-2000s—the hitch-stepped, image-phobic world of J-horror films like The Ring and Pulse, and bleak, hard-R extreme horror—combine to diabolical effect in Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, an occult thriller that scares with an absolute relentlessness. Derrickson previously directed The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, a hysterical demon-possession movie that turned a chilling true story—realized much more subtly a year later in the German film Requiem—into an overcranked Exorcist knockoff. Derrickson pulls out all the stops here, too, with the jitters and jump cuts of a Nine Inch Nails video and a Trent Reznor-like score (by Christopher Young) to match. It’s all done in questionable taste, mucking around in the nasty terrain of snuff films and children in constant peril, but Sinister is smart and well-crafted, and it scarcely gives the audience a moment to breathe.
An ideally cast Ethan Hawke brings dimension to the role of a true-crime writer whose egomaniacal quest for another bestseller lands his family in terrible trouble. His latest project involves the investigation of the hanging deaths of a couple and their two children and the disappearance of a third child. Without his wife (Juliet Rylance) and children knowing, Hawke moves them into the murder house to work on his book, and before long, disturbing events start happening. The trouble begins when Hawke discovers a box of 8mm home movies sitting in the attic, each depicting the gruesome ritual murder of a different family across the span of a few decades. With the help of a local deputy—a hilarious James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire)—Hawke starts to put the pieces together, but the connections lead him into a supernatural realm.
Derrickson and his co-screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, do their best to make the audience believe that Hawke’s vanity and greed would lead him to put his family in immediate peril—with his drinking problem, his obsessive myopia, and his possible hallucinations, there are shades of Jack Torrance in The Shining. As usual with ghost stories or stories of the occult, the fear dissipates a little once the (in this case, absurdly elaborate) mythology comes into focus, and they’ve tossed in a boy with night terrors just to crank the machine that much more. But scary is scary, and Sinister moves with a full-throttle intensity—and residual creepiness—that’s occasionally shameless and overwrought, but hits like a battering ram.