True crime writing never pays.
Ellison (Ethan Hawke) had a widely-acclaimed bestseller his first time out, but that was ten years ago. He hasn't been able to replicate that success, though he keeps trying, continually moving his family as close to the scenes of unsolved crimes as he can. He investigates the crimes, makes enemies of local law enforcement, and writes books that are meeting with diminishing returns.
His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is supportive, but her patience has its limits, and those limits are coming into sight. Mostly, she's worried about their two children, who have been constantly uprooted; young Ashley (Clare Foley) semms OK, but 12-year-old Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) is manifesting signs of stress and anxiety.
With these character threads established, Scott Derrickson's Sinister narrows its focus to Ellison, in a dark room in a dark house, watching old home movies that he found in the attic. They're germane because Ellison has moved his family, this time, not near a crime scene but into a crime scene, the site of a tragedy in which a family of four was found hanged on a big old tree on the property.
The hanging is depicted in the first scene of the movie as a flickering 8mm film, and it's one of the home movies that Ellison watches, the cannisters labeled with titles that sound innocuous, but document more terrible death scenes involving families. As Ellison presses forward his investigation with the help of a local deputy sheriff (James Ransone), he becomes increasingly unsettled mentally, and his children are affected, too, especially Trevor.
Sinister aims for the subconscious, seeking to build an atmosphere of apprehension and fear, and leading to a disquieting dread in the pit of the stomach. That, in and of itself, sets it apart from nearly all recent American horror films, which rely on blood, guts, vampires, werewolves, or zombies to deliver their sometimes-enjoyable but more conventional thrills.
Derrickson made the creepy The Exorcism of Emily Rose before doing the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was killed by its script. The screenplay for Sinister, written by C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson, sets up a very dark premise and contains some neat twists.
The effectiveness of the 'jump' scares is mixed, though, too often reliant on sound and camera placement to be genuinely frightening, beyond the 'boo' moment. Sinister seeks to get under the skin, and does so with the home movie footage, which recreates the scratchy, old 8mm look and is packed with disturbing imagery.
That sense of dread doesn't carry over to the movie as a whole. Hawke makes for a convincing wreck of an exhausted writer, and carries the show as far as he can, mostly on his own, but there's not enough emotional heft behind the 8mm imagery to bleed into real life.
Still, Sinister undermines to a good degree any expectations for a true-crime tale of a haunted house, and the murder scenes leave behind an aftertaste that lingers long after the final twist.
This review was originally published during SXSW 2012. Sinister opens wide across the U.S. and Canada on Friday, October 12.