Writer-director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and co-scripter C. Robert Cargill (the Ain’t It Cool News staffer who pitched the story) clearly hoped to make Sinister an old-school horror movie, mining terror from classic haunted house scenarios designed to drive a desperate writer to Shining-style madness. Juice that formula with ancient deviltry laced with contemporary tech-paranoia and Sinister ought to look and play like lethal nightmare, in the tradition of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It doesn’t. Derrickson and Company, lacking Carpenter’s filmmaking chops and bone-deep faith in the genre, can’t deliver the hair-raising goods. Sinister may make you jump at predictable intervals, but it never rattles your existential certainties the way truly subversive horror does.
True-crime author Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) has moved his family into a new home, failing to mention that the previous tenants were murdered by hanging. Fact is, our hero doesn’t much care what his long-suffering wife and kids think or feel; he’s jonesing for a best-seller, having last hit the jackpot 15 years ago. Pretty quick, a mysterious box turns up in the attic, packed with an 8mm projector and cans of home movies with benign-sounding titles like “Pool Party,” “Yard Work,” “Sleepy Time,” “Hanging Out With the Family.” These turn out to be grainy snuff films, gruesome to the max, and soon Oswald notices disquieting connections with the unsolved murders he’s investigating. Then, with the aid of computer technology, he discovers and extracts from the moving pictures a recurring image: a horrific goblin face as blankly malevolent as Michael’s in Halloween.