Ten years after his last success, true-crime writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves his wife and two kids into a house where he plans to write his next book. The last family to live there died there: except for a girl who is missing. In the attic Ellison finds a box labeled “Home Movies.” Inside is a vintage Super-8 projector and five reels of family life. They all end with a fiendishly staged multiple-homicide. “Sinister” delivers its last-reel exposition via an envelope labeled “Extended Cut Endings.” Never has Super-8 fit so suspensefully into a plot since “Manhunter.” Director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill make bad and baffling choices. Horror fixtures are all over the place, including the county sheriff who may know stuff and ain’t sayin’. That’s a feint. The odd deputy with the lines–“Snakes don’t have feet” and “Scorpions have feet” and “I am not a local moron”–goes no place. The obligatory professor of occult medieval symbols plays his part straight. No teaser there, but what’s with the loud hiss of old-time movie sound heard in the first minute, and once again about an hour later? Or that mechanical clatter with no correlation to any machine, least of all the movie projector? Yet another disconnect: a coffee-making montage and a projector-handling montage built from very brief extreme close-ups. Very basic by-the-book scares are constructed by the book. At least I screamed the first few times Ellison checks out noises in the dark and all of a sudden… ! The very last few frames, though, disappoint with a very dumb startle-reflex. The opening minute’s shocker is now a distant memory. Ellison hopes his new book will be his “In Cold Blood.” The less auspicious “Sinister” would be lucky if shelved with writer-in-peril films ”1408” and “Kalifornia.” With Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio. 110m. (Bill Stamets)
“Sinister” opens Friday.