Critic rating:
MPAA rating: R
Genre: Horror
A true-crime writer played by Ethan Hawke takes his family to live in a house where the last occupants were hung from a tree.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Vincent D'Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Nicholas King, Clare Foley, Victoria Leigh, Michael Hall D'Addario
Director: Scott Derrickson
Running time: 1:50
Release: Opened Oct 12, 2012

Editorial Review

Scared stupid by silly concept
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 12, 2012

The moron is a beloved trope of horror movies, as most fans of the genre will tell you (quite loudly, in fact, as they gleefully shout “Don’t go in there!” at the screen). He -- or, more often, she -- is the character audiences love to hate, even more so than whatever bogeyman happens to be bedeviling the poor girl or guy.

Yet even by these low standards, the hero of “Sinister” is almost unaccountably dumb. So, unfortunately, is the movie.

Played by Ethan Hawke, Ellison Oswalt is a true-crime writer who, in an effort to research his next book, moves with his unwitting wife (Juliet Rylance) and two young children (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) into a house where the last occupants were hung from a tree in the back yard. Why on earth does he do this? For the same reason, presumably, that geologists feel compelled to live in underground caves.

Oh, they don’t?

And this is just the first five minutes. Before he has fully unpacked, Ellison discovers a box in the attic containing a movie projector and a stack of Super 8 films with explicit footage of that most recent massacre, along with several other similarly grisly murders going back to the 1960s, and involving burning, drowning and throat-slitting. After watching a few minutes of this charming snuff-film library, the first thing Ellison realizes is that someone must have left the movies specifically for him.

But who could it be? Think, think.

Ellison, whose home office is plastered with maps, strings of yarn, photos and Post-it notes -- in a caricature of an FBI profiler’s office, as one character wryly observes -- actually writes this brilliant question down on a piece of paper.

If it’s the neighborhood welcoming committee, wouldn’t a casserole be more appropriate? Who else beside the murderer, or his cinematographer, would even have access to this material?

Okay, so Ellison isn’t completely brain-dead.

And yet, despite being stalked by an apparent serial killer, he doesn’t even remotely consider moving out of the house. Not after he starts hearing footsteps and other scary noises in the attic, where he also finds a scorpion and a snake. Not after his son starts having chronic night terrors. Not after someone -- or something -- keeps breaking into his locked office in the middle of the night and turning on the projector. And not even after he starts seeing the face of the presumed killer, who is clearly recognizable from the films . . . in his own back yard.

No. He does what any sane, responsible father would do: consult a specialist in the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio), who tells Ellison that the culprit, based on symbols left at the various crime scenes, is most likely the ancient Babylonian deity Bughuul, who feeds on the souls of children.

(Note: All of these details can be seen in the trailer -- which is really dumb.)

Judging by appearance, “Bughuul” means: “guy in a ‘Scream’ mask.” Other nutty touches include ghostly children with their faces painted like extras from a Halloween-themed Cirque du Soleil show. What’s with all the pancake makeup?

Remember 2010’s “Insidious?” The bad guy in that movie, which shares some of the same producers with “Sinister,” was equally theatrical.

None of this, of course, means that the movie isn’t scary. It actually is, from time to time.

But it’s the kind of empty-calorie terror that may make you jump -- for a second -- but that doesn’t freak you out as you walk back to your car, or keep you up at night. Written and directed by Scott Derrickson, the guy responsible for 2005’s lousy “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” the movie is the ultimate in fast-food frights: momentarily satisfying but unmemorable.

Contains grisly and violent imagery.