WHEN IT COMES to the scary movie genre, I've lowered my expectations to such an exacting degree, I feel like if even 10 minutes are good then it's cause for a horrorgasm. So break out the cigarette, and let's bask in the afterglow of the generically titled Sinister. It's not entirely a toe-curling success, but it's no slouch either—there are many genuine scares, a disturbing and lurking menace, and the eeriest mid-century house haunting since David Lynch's Lost Highway. Was I scared for more than 10 minutes? Yes! Was there a good bad guy? You betcha! Let's cuddle!
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a washed-up true-crime novelist who's desperate to replicate his past success by moving his family into the house of an unsolved murder, where he plans to write his next bestseller. It's there that a family of four was hanged from a tree in the backyard and the family's youngest daughter was kidnapped. Ellison aims to get to the bottom of it—without telling the wife and kids they live in a murder house (sorry, I mean murder home). With two creepy kids and a generic grumpy wife, all work and no play could turn Ellison into a dull serial profiler, but his new joint's got all the luxuries. The attic comes fully stocked with the serial killer's very own library of snuff films. What a helpful clue! Ellison fires up the Super 8 projector to watch all manner of killings, slug back shot after shot of whiskey, and get increasingly freaked out by a Big Bad who looks straight outta a Norwegian metal band.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson, who wrote and directed 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, calculates his scares, and they're legitimate and unrelenting. What prevents Sinister (a name you'll never remember—so how's about we call it Ethan Hawke Watches Too Many Snuff Films?) from soaring beyond mere competency is that it all feels a bit too pat and forced. While the film fails to purely horrify, it is a nice little Shining-lite as Ethan Hawke's veneer begins to crack under the brutality of the killer's reels of home movies. Sinister is indeed sinister, but it doesn't quite fill you up with dread with its goofy deus ex machina and oodles of creepy children. But it did get the job done. Now let's get some shut-eye, lover.