Despite holes, 'Sinister' is successfully spooky

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:48 AM ET

The modern horror film almost couldn't exist without the-guy-who-shouldn't-do-that.

He's the guy who goes into the fog to check out that noise, says "Candyman" repeatedly, or has sex within earshot of a puritanical axe-murderer.

And he has nothing on Ellison (Ethan Hawke) the infuriatingly egomaniacal true-crimes author at the center of the supernatural horror movie Sinister.

More than a little reminiscent of Joe McGinniss (who famously bought the house next door to Sarah Palin while writing a book about her), Ellison is in the habit of moving his family into houses near the scenes of grisly murders, the better to soak up the crime-scene ambience.

Considering that he has a son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) who has a history of night terrors, and a daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) with other issues, it's understandable that his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) would be giving him the stink-eye.

And it's even more understandable that he'd keep certain things from his family - like the fact that the newest house they've moved into actually was recently the scene of a multiple hanging murder.

This seems like an untenable secret to keep, and it's the hardest part to swallow in Sinister. But if you do, it's a pretty good set-up for an almost suffocatingly atmospheric horror film from, as they say, "the makers of Paranormal Activity," one that leans hard on the always-effective horror movie trope of scary children.

Like a low-rent The Shining, Sinister is the tale of a writer losing it, while the house he's living in begins to take over his family. A noise in the attic leads him to a solitary box of "family movies," and an 8mm projector to watch them with. The movies are happy family scenes from different eras - '60s to '00s - each of which ends with the grisly murder of said family.

This is, again, where Ellison is an almost impossible protagonist to like. Having found visual evidence of murders, 99 out of 100 people would immediately call the police. But the local police (especially the chief, played by Fred Thompson) are hostile to Ellison, considering him an amateur playing with people's lives (which he arguably is).

So it's left to our anti-hero, whisky in hand, to deconstruct the film. With the help of one starstruck local cop (James Ransone), blurred images of the scary-looking killer, occult symbols and all, he connects dots while his children begin acting out compulsively and his wife inevitably finds out the truth about their dubious "dream home."

There's one other trope of the Paranormal Activity movies in Sinister, the inevitable contact with an occult "expert" (Vincent D'Onofrio) who has the expositional job of identifying exactly what kind of occult phenomenon we're dealing with here. (Every demon apparently has been identified in some book somewhere, although failing the aid of an expert, most horror movie sleuths simply turn to Google these days).

By the end of the movie, the template for the last act has pretty much been telegraphed for us.

No matter. For all its holes of plot, Sinister is a successfully spooky piece of work, riding entirely on the backs of mood-making, Hawke's descent into dissolution and his kids' convincing scariness.


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