Ten years ago, true crime writer Ellison Oswald made his reputation with a best-selling account of a notorious murder. Now, desperate to replicate success of his first book, he moves his family into a home where the previous occupants were brutally executed and a child disappeared, hoping to find inspiration in the crime scene. In the home, Ellison discovers a cache of terrifying home movies, unwittingly opening the door into a nightmarish mystery.
A scary movie that understands the value of a slow burn, Sinister stands as an unsettling hybrid between old-school horror jolts and newfangled found-footage creepiness. Beginning with a hackle-raising 16mm film clip, the story follows a disgraced true-crime author (Ethan Hawke) who, in hopes of regaining his writerly mojo, moves his unsuspecting family into a house where a grisly murder took place. After discovering a projector and collection of home movies in the attic, he finds evidence of a series of unsolved crimes, all centering around an ancient supernatural presence with an appetite for children. What's worse, said Presence seems to be aware of the attention. Director-cowriter Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) does a fine job in amping up the tension, cannily placing ominous shadows in the background while ladling out the overt jump scares in sensible qualities. The cast also contributes to the film's tangibly bad vibes, with Hawke's deepening twitchiness bolstered by small yet notable contributions from old pros Fred Dalton Thompson and Vincent D'Onofrio--the latter, in a witty nod to the film's techno-horror themes, seen entirely via Skype. What ultimately puts Sinister over the top, however, are the home movies themselves, which get under the skin in a way that eludes the more polished shocks. Featuring innocuous titles like Pool Party, BBQ, and Lawn Work, and sporting a Fotomat's worth of crackles and pops, they lend a realism to the supernatural events that proves hard to shake. You'll never yawn through a vacation slideshow again. --Andrew Wright