With some well-timed moments of sheer fright, Sinister is the type of horror film you watch by peeping through your fingers.

From my personal experience, there are essentially two types of true horror movies – best described as ‘sinkers’ and ‘jumpers’. Sinister manages a rare feat in that it will cruelly weigh you down into your seat with its undeniably chilling atmosphere. And just when you think you can’t sink any further, the film will throw you some well-timed moments of sheer fright that will launch you off your seat.

Any fan of the genre will find the beginning clichéd with all the trappings of some classic horror films of yesteryears. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a non-fiction crime writer whose previous book has brought him fame and fortune by detailing some gruesome homicides in a manner that questions the competence of law enforcement personnel. As expected, Ellison does not receive a warm welcome when he moves into a new house with his wife and two children. The local Sheriff (Fred Thompson) warns the Oswalts that the house has seen better years, but only Ellison knows that their new home was the scene of a multiple homicide, where the previous family was hanged to death. Looking for inspiration on his new book, Ellison finds it in a box of super-8 film footage; five in all. Each film depicts the hideous deaths of different families in various locations, including the family that was killed in the house before the Oswalts moved in. As Ellison becomes obsessed with the footage, his family slips into utter chaos with terrifying consequences; but this is where the clichés end. Through close scrutiny, Ellison discovers a link threading all five murders – an unsettling demonic presence that seems to be reaching out from within the films.

Right from the title, the director works towards delivering his promise. This is a scary film in part or whole, depending on how experienced you are as a horror fan. Believe me, there is something for everyone; even the hardest of skeptics. Aiding the plot is strong character build-up by Hawke, and as the film progresses, Juliet Rylance as Ellison’s wife Tracy. Hawke is convincing as a crime-writer with an appetite for fame. There is an amusing confrontation when Tracy discovers Ellison’s true motive behind moving into the new house. This is Rylance’s moment, delivering with the fierceness of a protective mother who has only just realised the dangerous consequences of her husband’s stupidity, even though they are sitting on a goldmine of a story.

It is no secret that the horror genre is dying. This is because film makers, and screen writers for that matter, are always searching for the next best way to scare an unsuspecting audience – ‘Unsuspecting’ being the key word. Inspired by paralysing horror films like The Ring and Insidious, director Scott Derrickson uses C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay to maximum knee-jerking effect. Yes, there are moments that allow the viewer to cower in preparation for a frightening jolt, but Derrickson’s nuance is in those unnerving moments that seem to reach out to the viewer directly, while oblivious to the on-screen character. Watch out for these scenes where things happen off-centre but extremely intentional in spooking you. Blink and you might miss it, but Derrickson has thrown in quite a few of these scenes just in case you blink a lot!

Despite its faults towards the end, there is a lot to like about Sinister. Even if you end up watching this film by peeping through your fingers, there is mystery, murder and mayhem and it all leads to a morbid twist you won’t see coming. Oh, and one more thing, the soundtrack is dreadful, in a ghastly way. It’s as if Derrickson recorded the wailing of tormented souls and played it back just for kicks. You have been warned.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.