*** (out of four)
Tracy (Juliet Rylance) tells her husband Ellison (Ethan Hawke) she hopes the couple and their two kids haven't moved into a house a few doors down from a crime scene. If he were being honest, Ellison would say, “Um, no, honey. It's much worse than that.”
Unbeknownst to his family, the true-crime author has moved them into a house where a family of four was hanged. Desperate for his first hit in years, Ellison needs material for another book. Tracy says if things go sour like the last time, she's taking the kids and leaving.
Obviously, there'd be no movie if things didn't get bad, really bad, but director/co-writer Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) crafts a thriller with uncommon style and care. Ellison grows increasingly paranoid after he finds Super 8 film footage of different murders that may be linked, and when your projector constantly wakes you in the middle of the night by turning itself on, that's not exactly a clue that everything's a-OK.
“Sinister” becomes a bit overcomplicated and doesn't pay off all of its set-ups. Organic, human-generated spookiness would be wise not to descend into exaggerated legends of the supernatural. Still, a horror movie's doing its job if you catch yourself eying the corners of the screen, anxiously searching for the presence of evil waiting to strike. I'm plenty guilty of that this time.
Much of that tension comes from Derrickson's command of mood and a clever use of the increasingly stale found-footage concept. Here, as Ellison watches old home movies with seemingly innocuous titles like “Pool party,” he knows something terrible's about to happen, and there's nothing he can do but watch in fear.
During the creepy, legitimately F-ed up “Sinister,” you'll understand the feeling.
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