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.imagesCAJBDUJK

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…..

‘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.

Extras: Director’s commentary, two featurettes and deleted scenes

 

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