Only in the world of horror movies do people knowingly move into houses where the previous tenants were horrendously murdered. (Horror-movie protagonists also go into the basement, answer the doorbell, or do any number of dopey things so that the show may go on.) So at the beginning of Sinister when true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves with his wife and two young kids into the house in which an atrocity he is currently investigating occurred, we can safely assume the worst is going to happen. It also helps to have a spouse who asks few questions and begs not to be told all the sordid details of his work.
It’s been 10 years since Ellison’s last big bestseller, and he thinks the project he’s now working on could be his In Cold Blood. The writer realizes that he craves the fame and notoriety of being a blockbuster author and has lost sight of his earlier altruistic goals: seeking justice for the victims and exposing evil predators. Hawke is particularly good at portraying these kinds of intellectual conflicts, drinking alone in his study as he watches old videotapes of himself being interviewed by Tavis Smiley and others. In the attic of the new house, Ellison finds a mysterious box of Super-8 film reels and a projector. The movies are records of the handiwork of “Mr. Boogie”: garish family mutilations. But even when Ellison’s son (D’Addario) and daughter (Foley) start drawing graphic pictures of these crimes, which they know nothing about, Ellison stands his ground on this house’s creaky floorboards.
That’s not all that’s creaky, either. This spooky-house movie gets an infusion from the found-footage wave of horror movies that have become trendy of late. Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who co-wrote the movie with Austinite C. Robert Cargill, shows great love for the ritualistic procedure of threading up the projector and the processes of splicing films and transferring them to digital outputs. The film’s sound design is also expertly wrought with a blend of nearly subliminal noises, bumps in the night, and other frights. Yet, visually, day and night are not always discernible from each other, and, eventually, supernatural occurrences take over the screen. It’s with supernatural explanations that Sinister’s ultimate explication lies – a far cry from the true-crime tale the movie starts out as.