Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance. Written and directed by Scott Derrickson. 14A. 110 min. Opens Oct. 12.
If you’re writing a true crime novel, it’s probably not a good idea to move into the exact house where your subjects were brutally murdered. That’d be sound advice even if the place weren’t haunted by an ancient Pagan deity, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for ex-best-selling author Ellison (Ethan Hawke) as he and his family are put through the Amityville-esque wringer in Sinister. Really, you can’t help but feel like they brought this on themselves.
Actually, the question of what’s at risk for writers working in such a disreputably popular genre could make for a pretty good—and potentially disturbing—film, and for a while, writer-director Scott Derrickson seems aware of this. The early scenes, where Ellison butts heads with local law-enforcement officers none too eager to be caricatured in a book about an unsolved crime and where he rebuts questions from his kids about why they had to suddenly move away from their friends so daddy can do his work, are relatively compelling: Hawke, who, for whatever reason, is often cast as a writer, gives the character enough obsessive and narcissistic shadings to suggest that he might be an imperfect protagonist.
Such telling subtleties are jettisoned almost immediately, however, in favour of a plot that plays out like a patchwork of other (not necessarily better) horror films. Ellison’s discovery of Super 8 footage detailing the misdeeds of a serial killer recalls Saw, while the encroaching presence of a demon with a thing for little kids evokes (read: rips off) the Paranormal Activity series. Ultimately, Sinister is less effective than either of these, and certainly less tonally or narratively coherent than 2010’s Insidious, which combined similar elements (imperiled children, family curses, and extra-dimensional realms) with greater success. The only outstanding element in Sinister is the performance of James Ransone, an excellent television actor (The Wire, Treme), who turns a stock supporting role as a dopey deputy into something richly comic: His character’s rambling thoughts on squirrels are more memorable than any of the peekaboo appearances of the film’s Juggalo-doppelganger bogeyman.