Rated R for disturbing violent images.
"Sinister" stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who moves his unwitting family into a "murder house" that may be haunted by more than bad vibes, as he realizes when he discovers a cache of home movies in the attic that appear to have been shot over several decades by a serial killer or some other evil auteur.
The gruesome 8 mm films are labeled with such cute titles as "Pool Party" (a mass drowning) and "Family Hanging Around" (by their necks). "This could be my 'In Cold Blood,'" the author, Ellison Oswalt, enthuses, keeping his discovery secret from not only his family but the gruff local sheriff (former Tennessee senator and flash-in-the-pan Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson).
A problem with haunted house movies is that the audience inevitably asks: Why don't these folks just move already? "Sinister" neatly confronts and conquers this objection: The increasingly disheveled (and alcohol-impaired) Ellison is desperate to recapture the wealth and fame that accompanied his only best-seller, "Kentucky Blood," 15 years earlier.
To achieve this goal, he's willing to jeopardize his long-suffering blond British wife (Juliet Rylance), 12-year-old son (Michael Hall D'Addarrio) and young daughter (Clare Foley), even after the sweet little girl begins augmenting her bedroom unicorn murals with paintings of dead children.
The script by C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson is indebted to some welcome influences, including Stephen King ("The Shining," "Secret Window," many other "anguished author" stories) and Michelangelo Antonioni (1966's "Blowup," in which a fashion photographer stumbles upon a murder mystery in a series of images).
Unfortunately, Derrickson (a scripter of the upcoming West Memphis Three drama, "Devil's Knot," and the director of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") or his producers apparently lost their nerve in the editing room, deciding that the film wasn't "scary" enough. They punched it up with silly "shock" stutter-cuts, in-your-face "Boo!" moments, startling BUMPS in the night and other clichés of the modern chiller (including, yes, too many visions of creepy kids, as popularized by Japanese horror movies). The unnerving score and sound design are so busy we're often not sure which ominous noises are supposed to be audible to the characters and which are intended to frighten only us.
Still, "Sinister" — which eschews explicit gore (a throat-slitting, for example, is seen only in reflection, in Ellison's eyeglasses) — is just that. It's spooky, and it benefits from a claustrophobic atmosphere (almost the entire film takes place in the family's characterless brick ranch house) and some well-time comic relief courtesy of James Ransone, as a sympathetic officer known as "Deputy So and So". If the finale is not entirely satisfying, it's not a cop-out, either.