By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It is, at its core, a haunted house flick, but one squarely dancing the found-footage fandango.
Sinister is a supernatural horror thriller that, if it doesn’t transcend the limitations of the genre, does at least have its share of moments, especially in the early going, that do just what they’re designed to do: scare the courage right out of your convictions.
Ethan Hawke stars as self-absorbed true-crime novelist Ellison Osborne, who has uprooted his family — wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), and son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Adarrio) -– and moved them into a new home so that he can research his next book.
What he hasn’t shared with them, however, is the fact that the house that they have moved into was a horrific crime scene, the location of the slaughter of a family of four and the subsequent disappearance of the family’s fifth member, a young daughter.
This is what he wants to write about in his next book, one that he hopes will get him back on the bestseller list for the first time in a decade.
Sure sounds worth risking the affection and perhaps the lives of his loved ones for, huh? Because they’re also unaware of the box of cans of 8mm home movies that he’s discovered in the attic that reveal that a partial family of four, the previous occupants of this abode, had been hanged from a tree with hoods over their heads in a carefully orchestrated execution.
And as he goes through the other snuff reels, each depicting families being gruesomely, ritualistically murdered, emboldened by his ever-increasing imbibing, he struggles to ascertain the connections among the savage, premeditated killings.
Some nights, while he sleeps, the noise of the home movie projector awakens him. But who’s threading the film and turning the projector on? And why?
Or is he just hallucinating?
Scott Derrickson -– who directed the more-than-respectable remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the masterfully terrifying supernatural horror drama, The Exorcism of Emily Rose — co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill. The collaborators do an especially effective job with the film’s creepily disturbing buildup, which is restrained and ominous and unnerving.
But once a full explanation of the mythology is offered, once the intimated becomes explicit, there’s a palpable dip in tension and intensity and the air comes out of the balloon: the big reveal comes at least a reel too early and perhaps shouldn’t come at all.
Consequently, by the time the coda arrives,we’ve stopped worrying, fearing, or caring –- all of which we were hitherto doing.
Pity, because Derrickson’s handling of the suddenly ubiquitous found-footage device is something to see. Literally. Not only are the home movies voyeuristically gripping, grittily chilling, and emotionally upsetting, even the sound of the whirring projector becomes a remarkably effective scare technique.
Hawke provides enough in the way of edges and flaws to make his novelist a bit more interesting than the standard-issue horror-flick protagonist, while Derrickson manages all the horror-flick behavioral improbabilities and children-in-peril thrusts so they’re not too objectionable.
Which is why we’ll project 2½ stars out of 4. For most of its running time, Sinister lives up to its title.