Film Review: Sinister

Hoping to revive his flagging career, a true-crime writer puts his family in harm's way in this genuinely creepy horror movie, which suggests more than it shows but shows enough to make non-genre fans watch from between closed fingers.

Ellison Oswald's (Ethan Hawke) first book, Kentucky Blood, was both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. But follow-ups Cold Denver Morning and Blood Diner were disappointments and he's got one more chance to get it right again before he's officially a has-been. Ellison thinks he sees an opportunity in a recent Pennsylvania murder/kidnapping, and where better to begin researching the case—parents and two children hanged in their own backyard and a third child missing—than to move into their home? But Ellison fails to mention the precise provenance of their new digs to his devoted wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), and their kids, snippy 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and adorable little Ashley (Clare Foley). After all, there's no point in spooking them, right?

But as it turns out, ignorance is no protection from the very bad mojo that haunts the house, and Ellison gets the heebie-jeebies first and worst, thanks to the box of 8mm movies he finds in the attic, thoughtfully packed with their own projector. Neatly labeled with names like "Hanging Out," "BBQ" and "Pool Party," they depict the murders of five hapless families, starting in 1966 and ending with the Stevensons in 2011. And it gets worse—as Ellison obsessively watches the awful footage, he spots a shadowy figure with a masklike face, first in one film and then the rest. What the hell has he stumbled onto? And why are the kids suddenly acting so weirdly, what with Trevor's sleepwalking (which precipitates the movie's first Holy crap! shock) and hearts-and-unicorns-loving Ashley suddenly driven to paint the missing Stevenson girl? Even the local deputy (James Ransone, of HBO's “The Wire” and “Treme”) who volunteers to defy his gruff boss (Fred Dalton Thompson) and act as Ellison's research assistant seems suspect—is he really just a fan angling for a spot in the new book's acknowledgements or does his apparent guilelessness conceal darker motives?

Sinister doesn't break any new ground, but it works haunted-house conventions with considerable skill and admirable conviction. And though not a pure found-footage movie like the current V/H/S, it leans heavily on the conceit, whose popularity has waxed and waned ever since The Blair Witch Project rode it to pop-culture immortality. But Sinister is at its most, well, sinister, when Ellison begins falling under the spell of the artless, 8mm nightmare footage from the attic: It's the scariest stuff in the movie and an stinging rebuke to every horror movie that ever tried to hide a second-rate story and one-dimensional characters under layers of gore and shock cuts. Additional kudos are due to the filmmakers for casting Hawke and the theatre-trained Rylance as the Oswalds; though they come from very different backgrounds, each is thoroughly comfortable playing an adult…a deeply flawed adult in Hawke's case, but an adult nonetheless. They bring an unforced sense of maturity to a genre whose conventions too often rely on everyone behaving like an air-headed teenager.