From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
Along with a far more imaginative title, “Sinister” needs a ruthless editor to carve about 20 frustrating minutes off its horror-thriller story.
Mixing elements of the found footage and haunted house schools of horror, the latest fright film from writer-director Scott Derrickson (2005’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” remake) has plenty of potential. It opens with stark, disturbing images, sets up its paranormal plot with an effective combo of creepy atmospherics, well-timed jump-scares and psychological needling, and boasts Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”), who anchors the proceedings with an interesting, fleshed-out central character.
Before the final credits roll, Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill even manage to work an intriguing twist on the usual horror tropes. But “Sinister” takes far too long to get to that twist, turning what should be a lean and terrifying 90-minute film into an exasperating nearly two-hour supernatural slog.
Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer who made his name and the best-seller lists a decade ago by penning a book that solved a murder the police couldn’t. His past couple of books haven’t fared nearly as well, though, and he is desperate for another dose of fortune and glory, as well as a little redemption, So he moves his wife and children to a cozy suburb where four members of a family recently were found hung in a tree in their back yard, while the youngest — a little girl named Stephanie (Victoria Leigh) — vanished without a trace.
Ellison fails to tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) that the unsolved murders actually happened just outside the modest brick house they will be calling home.
After all, Tracy is ready for Ellison to stop moving them around the country and delving into grisly slayings in his quest for 15 extra minutes of fame, especially now that their children are old enough to understand his career. Their troublemaking tween son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) has been acting out and suffering from night terrors since he wandered into Dad’s office one day, and their daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), a budding artist, is begging to move back home to her old school, house and friends.
Plus, the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) makes it clear that the Oswalt family isn’t welcome in his town, since he disdains the way Ellison’s books portray police officers.
While moving in, Ellison discovers a mysterious collection of Super 8 film reels and a projector in a dusty box in the attic. Crime scene photos show that the box — marked “Home Movies” and containing reels dating from the 1960s to the ‘90s — wasn’t there when the police came through.
When Ellison watches the most recent movie, the writer is shocked that the reel features footage of the backyard murders. It doesn’t reveal the killer, though, and Ellison soon — but not soon enough — realizes that each reel documents the horrific death of another family.
The down-on-his-luck writer is still so driven to score his next literary hit that he doesn’t share his findings with the police. He eventually notices a bizarre masked figure and a strange symbol appear in each movie, and with the help of an eager-beaver deputy (James Ransone) and a long-distance professor (Vincent D’Onofrio), Ellison theorizes that a malevolent supernatural entity is behind the crimes.
Ellison also starts noticing a marked increase in spooky noises, unexplained occurrences and frightening animal encounters in and around the house. And that’s where “Sinister” falls apart.
There’s only so many times discerning film fans can watch a horror movie character make the same boneheaded mistakes before they stop caring whether the protagonist survives the cinematic evil in question. And Derrickson definitely crosses that line.
Hawke manages, just barely, to sell that his character is so ambitious he’s willing to ignore that a killer has managed to get inside his family’s new home at least once to deliver a box of old movies. But no actor is good enough to realistically portray a writer who was smart enough to solve a cold case but also happens to be stupid enough to go midnight ghost hunting with just a baseball bat or too idiotic to turn on the stinking light switch before he starts investigating bumps in the night.
It’s a shame that a story as chilling as “Sinister” should induce eye-rolls instead of sheer scares.