“Sinister” starts with a very unsettling visual, where members of a family are hanged in their back yard. It’s the film’s central image, and it’s a horrific one that sets the tone for the film, which doesn’t let up…until the end, when it matters most.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a famous true-crime writer who moves to a small town to investigate the brutal murder of the family (excepting one young daughter who went missing)…and moves into the house where the crime happened. He neglects to tell his family about this little tidbit, which includes a son prone to night terrors and a daughter who loves to paint.
The local police aren’t too keen about this hoity-toity city writer coming in behind them and telling the world what they did wrong, especially the sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, still every bit as frightening in a paternal way as our monster is in a supernatural way), who asks him to pack up and leave…as they’re unpacking and moving in.
Still, Ellison is determined to come up with one big hit, and he thinks he has hit the jackpot when he stumbles upon a box in the attic containing Super 8 film strips that appear to depict the family’s murder, as well as several other family murders from different time periods, all marked with macabre descriptions of the film like “family hanging out,” “Family BBQ,” and “Pool Party,” all describing the method of execution for the victims.
Once Ellison starts digging, he is mortified, but sees dollar signs in his future. What he gets, though, “Mr. Boogie,” also known as Bughuul. Who he is and what he wants is a spoiler I’m not quite prepared to offer, but let’s just say you’ll likely have it figured out by half way through the movie, though the movie thinks it has you fooled until the end.
The scares are mostly of the “boo!” variety and are harmless but building in intensity until the film’s climax when the creeps come to a screeching halt as the most predictable “twist” ending they could have chosen seeps out and the movie just stops.
There are a lot of red herring scares as well, either harmless “ghosts are here but not really doing anything to you” or relying on the very specific setups of other characters (hint: you think the son’s night terrors are going to come into play at any point?).
Hawke (“Training Day”) carries the film and does a good job of conveying his character’s terror, and you do believe he is in danger even as he clutches a baseball bat or a butcher knife, and there are plenty of scare-worthy moments, and a pretty solid sense of dread throughout. I remember verbally expressing my fright at least once during the film.