True crime writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) doesn’t just like to take his work home, he likes to move his family into the neighbourhood where the victims of his books were brutally murdered.  But this time it’s a little different. Although Ellison’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their two children Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) don’t realise it, he’s relocated them to the house where four members of the previous family who lived here were hung from the tree in the Ellison’s new backyard. The fifth member of that family, a young girl, has never been found.

It’s been a long time since Ellison had a bestseller and he promises his wife that this new book will be the one that makes them rich. It will be his legacy. “Your legacy is your children,” Tracy reminds him bluntly, after one heated argument.

They’re still moving in when Ellison discovers a mysterious box in the loft. He also discovers a nasty looking black scorpion but he squashes the scorpion flat and doesn’t think any more about it because when he takes the lid off the box he finds an old-fashioned cine projector and cans of film tucked away inside. On each can is a label – Pool Party, BBQ, etc. – so they’re obviously home movies helpfully left behind by the murdered family that might come in useful for Ellison’s research.

But they take Ellison on a journey he wasn’t expecting. When he sets up the projector in his study, pins a white sheet to the wall and presses play, he discovers that each can of film depicts a very gruesome murder. The first movie shows the last residents being hung from the tree. The next movie, taken in a different location several years earlier, records another family being burned to death in their car. Another family, another locale, have been bound to sun loungers and dragged into their swimming pool to drown.

And when Ellison starts to investigate further, enlisting the help of fanboy Deputy So and So (James Ransone) who is desperate to appear in the acknowledgements of Ellison’s new book, he learns that each slaughtered family included one child who is still unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, other things are happening around the house. Ellison hears loud banging coming from the loft and the projector seemingly switches itself on and starts to play the murder-movies in the middle of the night. When Ellison nervously confronts an intruder hiding in his garden he’s startled to discover it’s his son, who is experiencing extreme night terrors. And no sooner has he carried his son back into the house and returned to recover the baseball bat he was carrying to defend himself but a massive black dog appears out of nowhere and growls like it’s about to rip Ellison apart.

None of this seems to faze Ellison unduly. Maybe because he’s the kind of hardboiled writer who will endure anything to get his book finished, but I couldn’t help wondering why he didn’t at least send his wife and kids to live elsewhere. There’s blind ambition and then there’s getting some pretty clear indicators your family’s about to get supernaturally screwed with and not doing anything about it.

Of course, like all washed-up writers in these kind of movies, Ellison might be hitting the bottle a little too hard. Even Deputy So and So notices it. But if my daughter had painted a picture of a dead little girl in my hallway, and if I’d fallen through the floor of my loft and then discovered the event had been inexplicably recorded on film and downloaded to my computer, where I could see child-size hands had appeared on my shoulders to pull me down, I’d be hitting the bottle pretty hard too.

I certainly wouldn’t be walking into my study at night, alerted to the flickering lamp of the projector playing again, and not turning the lights on ahead of me first. And when I went back into the loft and found a very large snake hiding under the lid of a box, I’d be more interested in killing the snake before it escaped into the rest of the house than checking out the drawings on the box lid.

Which means I’d be a pretty rubbish horror movie hero because I, unlike Ellison, wouldn’t notice that each of the drawings corresponds with each of the filmed murders and that a mysterious demonic-looking figure called Mr. Boogie was in attendance every time.

What do you know? Suddenly Ellison looks closer at the cine footage and finds blurry photographic evidence of Mr. Boogie everywhere. He’s in the bushes behind the hanged people, he’s in the swimming pool, he’s reflected in the burning car. But he looks kinda like Gene Simmons in his KISS make-up, so I found it hard to take him seriously. Not that I’d want him stalking me though. Mr. Boogie, if you’re reading this review, I love your work and please stay the hell away from my house.

Ellison checks Mr. Boogie out with an occult expert because, as we know from movies like this one, finding a friendly occult expert who can answer all our questions and immediately recognise even the most obscure demon from a couple of hazy images and a box lid doodle is an unexpectedly simple procedure. Even when images of this particular demon are rare because ancient people believed he lived in those pictures and could drag his victims into his dimension.  Oh yes, and the demon is also an ‘eater of children’.

I think you can see where this is going.

‘Sinister’ is capably directed by Scott Derrickson, who previously helmed the workmanlike but not-very-scary ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’. Still, as exorcism flicks go ‘Emily Rose’ was one of the best so that’s a devil’s mark in his favour. But he also directed the excruciatingly bad remake of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ so I’m taking that mark away from him and, if it were down to me, he’d still be standing in the corner, facing the wall and wearing a pointy hat.

The fact is, despite the blatant stupidity and lack of interest in his family’s welfare that Ethan Hawke’s character displays, and even though most of the ‘scares’ are lifted from the book of ‘A Very Loud Bang Will Make You Jump, And A Dead Kid Looming Into Frame Behind The Unsuspecting Hero Will Make You Hide Under The Chair’, I enjoyed ‘Sinister’ a lot.

The script, co-written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, sets up the situation quickly and is heavy on atmosphere while also including some very (deliberately) funny dialogue , most of it given to the Deputy. In fact, James Ransone’s performance reminded me a lot of the very similar character David Arquette played in the ‘Scream’ movies. That’s an observation more than a criticism. Ransone doesn’t have much screen time but he makes an impact.

Sure, Ellison’s family could have been better developed and I wasn’t completely convinced by Juliet Rylance as Ellison’s wife but the young actors who play their son and daughter do a pretty decent job, and Michael Hall D’addario gave me the biggest creep-out moment of the movie during the first night the family spend in the house. You’ll know it when you see it.

Ethan Hawke, though, is front and centre the reason this film works. Despite the fact his character is selfish, either ridiculously gutsy or unbelievably stupid (I’m going with the last option) and briefly threatens to go a little bit Jack Torrance from ‘The Shining’, he gives a solid performance and never loses our attention.

And not even the ‘found footage’ aspect of the movie bothered me too much. Actually, it’s incorporated pretty well. But there is one massive hole in the story logic that still bothers me a lot. Who took the cine film of Ellison falling through the floor of his loft and how did it appear on the computer? And why wasn’t Ellison at least remotely spooked to see a bunch of tiny hands dragging him under? For me, it’s where I started to question how much sympathy I had for Ellison’s predicament and my early regard for ‘Sinister’ began to unravel.

‘Sinister’ isn’t a classic. The ending is way too predictable and the story eschews any kind of real psychological tension for big noises and jump scares, but it’s undemanding fun and one or two moments will make you want to hide behind your hands.

I definitely know I’m not going into the loft anytime soon.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white