Ethan Hawke is at his most haunted in this effective horror knockout from the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. A true-crime writer relocating his family to a house where the previous occupants were brutally slain, Hawke realises a new page of murder may be written when he discovers Super-8 snuff films in the attic and things start going bump in the night. Superior shock cinema with a killer pay-off.
What first appears to be another glossy haunted house flick, delivers much more in Scott Derrickson's "Manhunter meets Insidious" horror movie.
From the opening moments, as the hanging of a family in the backyard plays out in agonising slow motion, it is clear Sinister will not be a typical popcorn jumpfest.
Ethan Hawke delivers another hollow-cheeked performance to treasure as one-hit wonder true-crime author Ellison, out to rewrite a past wrong that saw his last book set a killer free.
The local sheriff (Dalton Thompson) is not happy Ellison's pitched up in his town, while Ellison's wife (Rylance) frets over the effect the move is having on their two children, particularly their prone-to-night-terrors son.
Ellison's investigation takes a macabre twist when innocuously named Super-8 home movies he uncovers in the attic actually contain the murders of families dating back decades, turning this latest killing into a serial case.
But, who is the demonic looking figure glimpsed in each movie?
Derrickson (last seen helming the best forgotten The Day The Earth Stood Still remake) shoots with washed-out, rainy day colours casting a foreboding pallor from the off, while requisite shocks (loud noises, pop-up ghosts, shrieking children) arrive with cool efficiency.
The snuff movie collection's vicious twist on everyday family situations chill the bone, and Derrickson deftly teases out the supernatural elements in fine mystery style, knowing when to put the audience ahead of Ellison for maximum dread.
Working on a presumably low budget that largely restricts the action to the murder house, the director turns said abode into a maze of gloomy corridors and spacious but ill-lit rooms with surprises lurking in the shadows.
C Robert Cargill's script (inspired by a nightmare following a screening of Ring) puts more meat on its characters than standard haunted house fare and manages to duck comparisons with The Shining despite the subject matter.
Vincent D'Onofrio and James Ransone offer solid support as an exposition spouting Professor and a comic relief cop, anxious for a chance to assist the "big shot" author, but the show belongs to Hawke and Rylance.
Plot holes are to be found - only Ellison hears the racket coming at night from the attic - but they matter little in a film that puts the head and heart, as well as the guts, into horror.
And any residual grumbles will evaporate come the memorably ruthless climax that guarantees Sinister cult movie status.