by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
Much has been made of the first five minutes of Sinister (* * stars out of four, rated R, out nationwide Friday), and rightfully so. They're some of the best horror scenes of the year.
Unfortunately, that's the highlight for this surprisingly by-the-book haunted house story.
Despite having an actual actor in Ethan Hawke and a co-screenwriter (Robert Cargill) from Ain't It Cool News, a site known for dismantling pedestrian movies, Sinister abides by the three rules of Hollywood Horror: Never turn on a light, never tell the cops (even if you are one), and investigate bumps in the night by yourself, preferably with a baseball bat or butcher knife.
It adds up to a sizable whiff on a softball of a premise: A true-crime writer (Hawke) discovers a cache of 8mm films suggesting serial killings dating back decades.
Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) manages some nice chills through the movie's "found footage," the hottest craze in horror since torture porn. Blurry, grainy and revealing little gore, the scenes of past slayings demonstrate how tension done right is a lot more terrifying than graphic violence.
But Sinister does little with the footage besides grind it into a bland hybrid of The Ring and Paranormal Activity, though Sinister relies more on "gotcha" moments than storytelling.
Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime novelist desperate to repeat the success of his best seller a decade ago. Sporting an elbow-patched cardigan and thick glasses, Hawke is fine if cliched as an egomaniacal author so starved for fame he moves his unwitting family into the home of a family hanging -- the movie's opening scene.
Ellison is barely unpacked before he finds a box of Super 8 spools and a projector. With brandy in hand, he watches reel after reel of the deaths, a series of creepy and effective murders that got fanboys in a lather after the film debuted at the SXSW film festival earlier this year.
The buzz is a puzzler, particularly since Sinister's hero makes agonizingly dumb decisions and the movie draws so heavily from The Ring, the 2002 chiller about a demon that possesses anyone who sees it on videotape.
Sinister's villain is more tech-savvy and even Mac-compatible (Apple tie-ins are everywhere). Some of the film's biggest jumps come from the demon haunting Ellison through his computer screen.
So why is he called Mr. Boogie, one of the film's myriad boilerplate touches? For every genre convention Sinister sidesteps, it follows with a formulaic turn. Ellison finds evidence of serial killings with a satanic edge, but tells just one cop, whom he swears to secrecy. Ghosts rattle, kids scream and the house has a snake and scorpion problem. Yet Ellison doesn't warn his children that reptiles roam the attic. Or even call an exterminator.
None of that would propel Sinister to its inexorable finale, a showdown between Ellison and an ancient spirit that not only finds fresh ways to murder clans, but gives his reality clips clever titles like "hanging with the family."
For a horror film, Sinister is hardly a bottom-feeder. Hawke can play the tortured soul, and the fuzzy murders ensure a half dozen good starts. But this found footage belongs in the recycle bin.