A dark and stormy horror movie of the Stephen King variety, “Sinister” steps carefully through familiar territory. Anchored by a moody Ethan Hawke performance and classically unsettling scare tactics, this icy supernatural thriller from director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and co-written by Ain’t It Cool News contributor C. Robert Cargill (aka “Massawyrm”) delivers on the promise of its title by boiling down its appeal to pure atmosphere.
The movie makes up for uneven dialogue and pacing issues through sheer horrific imagery, starting with the first shot, a grainy Super-8 of a family hanging from a tree playing in reverse. That’s one of several morbid death scenes discovered by true crime novelist Ellison (Hawke), a man on a vain mission to regain his popularity 10 years after his last hit.
Uprooting his family for the umpteenth time to a small town where mysterious murders have taken place, Ellison moves his brood to the exact spot of the aforementioned family slaughter. He wants answers so badly that he even lies to his concerned wife (Juliet Rylance) about the nature of his motives; exactly the kind of misdeed that this sort of formulaic exercise establishes so there’s just reason to punish its misguided anti-hero.
Although the dyspeptic local sheriff drops by to offer his disdain for Hawke’s depiction of the police force, “Sinister” remains almost exclusively within the confines of the writer’s new home. Armed with a boxful of Super 8 movies detailing brutal murders seemingly connected to the one that brought him this far, Ellison spends late nights playing the material on loop until he starts to see a ghastly figure in the background. And is it staring back at him?
It’s here that “Sinister” resorts to drab scenes of Ellison roaming the abode after dark searching for the sources of bumps in the night. Every time it starts to sag, however, Derrickson injects a fresh scare, owing much to the unexplored terrain of a child with night terrors. That would be Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), Ellison’s adolescent son, whose creepy somnambulistic tendencies find him popping up in dark places each time Ellison thinks he’s about to discover something else — until, of course, he discovers something else.
Derrickson leads his lambs to slaughter with ample skill, if not innovation. Relying too often on things that go bump in the night, “Sinister” has its fair share of clunky moments, particularly in its depiction of the marital drama used to flesh out the toll that Ellison’s careerist obsession has caused. (“This could be my ‘In Cold Blood’!” he barks at her when she complains.) With a standard shrieking score and the usual jumps, “Sinister” sometimes plays like a cheap, unimaginative formulaic indulgence. Outsourcing the explanation for everything to a bland professorial type (Vincent D’Onofrio), the movie lacks the ambition to tell a unique story.
But the scaled down nature of the production is impressively old school. (Producer Val Lewton, who invented this game in the forties with low budget studio efforts like “Cat People,” would have loved it.) The ghostly visuals creeping into the plot retain an especially chilling value for the lack of information accompanying them, and the supernatural figures are among the scariest to appear in an American horror movie since “The Grudge.”
Derrickson uses shadows and hyperbolic flashes of lightening with a powerful command over their implications. “You can never explain something like this,” the sheriff warns Ellis, and he’s exactly right: Menacing forces don’t need a raison d’être in order to legitimize their menacing qualities. Concluding the experience with a frightening climax that neatly caps the morbid feel, “Sinister” doesn’t break any rules, but excels at following the spookiest of them.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Summit doesn’t plan to open the movie until October, but its “secret” preview at SXSW played nicely with the festival’s midnight crowd, boding well for its box office success during Halloween movie season later this year.