2 and 1/2 stars
"Sinister" is exactly what dedicated horror fans crave from a movie: a conflicted, morally questionable protagonist, a creepy apparition, lots o' bloodletting, evil children and things that go bump in the night. It doesn't do anything original but it does it with gusto which explains why Lionsgate studio (one that rarely previews their horror films in advance) included the press on Monday night.
Even though he is on-screen 95 percent of the time and turns in a decent performance, Ethan Hawke, simply by appearing in a movie such as this, has dropped himself from low A to high B grade on the acting food chain. Doing graphic horror 20 years into your career is not what most actors would consider to be even a lateral move but to his credit, Hawke takes on a character that is hard to like even while he's exhibiting his best intentions.
A failed novelist turned true crime author, Ellison (Hawke) hasn't had a hit in a decade and is desperate to latch on to a juicy story. He regularly relocates his family to homes within close proximity of mass murder locations, which rightfully bothers his long-suffering wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance). Because of his unrelenting drive for fame, Ellison doesn't mess around this time and moves his brood into the same Pennsylvania home where four family members were hanged.
As we soon find out, Ellison has a less-than-ideal working relationship with police all over the country as he points out their shortcomings in great detail in his books. Upon arrival at the new home he receives a visit from the town sheriff (Fred Thompson) who essentially tells Ellison to get lost. This opinion is not shared by the deputy (who Ellison refers to as Deputy So-and-So) who is a huge fan of Ellison's and will eventually provide him with highly classified data.
The first hint that all is not right is when Ellison finds a case of Super 8 home movies in his attic that are dated as far back as the '60s. All but knowing it will be a major bad idea, Ellison threads the accompanying projector with a reel, pours himself a triple helping of Scotch and settles in for a view.
For a guy who wrote a bestseller titled "Kentucky Blood," Ellison has a low threshold for violence and regularly looks away from footage that really isn't all that graphic -- relatively speaking. Because he has put in considerable time as an investigative sleuth, Ellison is able to connect some elementary dots and concludes all of the ritual murders are related. Further information provided by Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone) confirms all of Ellison's suspicions, yet sensing the impending danger the writer continually implores his wife to believe in him because he's hit the mother lode of all true crime tales.
Perhaps without overtly knowing it, director/co-writer Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") turns in what is basically a full-tilt hybrid of "The Amityville Horror" and the truly unsettling "Insidious" from 2010. The home movie thing can't quite be labeled as found footage but it comes awfully close and as the movie progresses, these scratchy, amateurish parts of the movie provide the production's only real horrific passages.
With two predictable and rote acts behind him, Derrickson starts and concludes the final act the same way, but also nudges the narrative into truly creepy-crawly territory that belies convention. The many often insignificant droplets of plot finally pool into something far broader and ominous than what was initially indicated and the story comes to a satisfying but highly downbeat conclusion. Potent enough to stand alone, "Sinister" also keeps the door open for more, and if it manages to just break even, more is exactly what we'll get. (Lionsgate)