Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is a well-engineered scare machine, as the people sitting next to me at the screening can attest; at a certain level, one is hard-pressed to argue with soiled underpants. It’s also a triumph of atmosphere. The film has quite a bit in common with James Wan’s superior Insidious from a couple of years ago, but while Wan had by then become a hardcore classicist – all magisterial camera moves and orchestral stings – Derrickson prefers jittery industrial montages and an elaborate, beautiful sound design that makes it difficult to tell the diagetic from the non-. Sinister feels nervously committed to its goofball plunge into darkness – it never lets on to its own silliness, and so its silliness does nothing to ease the tension. It’s an “it’s only a movie” movie.
It also kind of doesn’t give a shit about the story it’s telling, which is a bummer. The screenplay, by Derrickson and long-time movie geek C. Robert Cargill, has basically one idea (which it saves for a big final reveal) and dumps on top of it some indifferent nonsense delivered by Vincent D’Onofrio in a couple of expository Skype sessions. (The degree to which Sam Raimi was able to work wonders with a similar and similarly thin premise is the reason Drag Me to Hell is such a clinic of a horror film.) And while the movie gets some conceptual props for making its protagonist a venal, selfish dick, I got the sense that this was done for the sole purpose of making the grim ending easier to swallow. (It also doesn’t help that he’s played by Ethan Hawke in his full smug-smirking-asshole mode, which is a little difficult to tolerate when it’s front and center like it is here.) Despite the early buzz from SXSW and in the geek press, Sinister is horror-movie-as-thrill-ride and not a ton more.
— Eugene Novikov