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"SINISTER"
(2012) (Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A true-crime novelist gets more than he bargained for when he moves his family into a house where a previous multiple murder occurred and was captured on home movies he discovers.
PLOT:
Ellison Oswalt (ETHAN HAWKE) is a true-crime novelist who hasn't had a bestseller in a decade. Desperate for another hit, he moves his family -- wife Tracy (JULIET RYLANCE), 12-year-old Trevor (MICHAEL HALL D'ADDARIO) and his younger sister, Ashley (CLARE FOLEY) -- to a home where the previous family was hanged, while the youngest child has not been found. He does so without telling the family they're in the home where that occurred, all in hopes of finding information the local authorities -- including the county Sheriff (FRED DALTON THOMPSON) who isn't pleased to see him arrive -- might have missed.

His first clue arrives in the form of a box of old 8mm home movies and a projector he finds in the attic. Showing both the hanging murders at that house but also multiple homicides elsewhere and via other means, Ellison tries to figure out who shot the films, the meaning behind the same symbol seen in some of them, as well as who or what a demonic-looking figure might be that also shows up in them.

With a local Deputy (JAMES RANSONE) doing some investigating work for him on those, Ellison attempts to piece everything together in hopes that his resultant work might rival the success of "In Cold Blood." But as he continues, strange things start occurring in the house at night, eventually resulting in ever-increasing supernatural activity that seemingly soon puts him and his family in danger.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I grew up in a house that some might classify as being haunted or at least the subject of paranormal activity. Before I was born, my parents would hear the distinct sound of someone cracking open nuts and then laying the hammer down by our basement door, but they never found anyone or anything there (an open field was below the house).

When I was very young, I distinctly remember watching as my bedroom door slowly opened and then closed on its own, and a few years later, I and my family were awakened by a loud crash in my bedroom. When my mom rushed in and turned on the lights, a fairly large box -- that had been firmly planted well under my bed -- was now out in the middle of the floor while I was still in bed under the covers.

Not much happened after that and my mom still lives there without any issues. Perhaps we scared away the spirit or entity with too much watching of bad TV sitcoms. Then again, I don't recall anything occurring after we got cable and HBO (back when it only aired after 5 pm and on the weekends) and thus were able to watch uncut horror movies such as "The Exorcist" and "The Shining." Maybe those films spooked the spooks and thus cleansed our house.

That was back in an era when the movie studios knew how to make high quality and truly terrifying pics. Since then, we've had slasher flicks, torture porn offerings, Japanese style horror movies and so-called found footage flicks like "Paranormal Activity" (the latter of which I found hilariously funny, like some haunted house amusement found on coastal boardwalks and the like). Yet, while some of them have had their creepy moments, for the most part none have been truly unnerving affairs that keep you up at night (mainly because their sudden jump scene jolts only have temporary power).

Following in that line, we now have "Sinister," yet another haunted house flick that has some decent moments in such regards, but overall garnered a meager "meh" response from yours truly. In it, Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime author who's hoping to break a decade-long dry spell in terms of penning a best seller. His modus operandi is to move his family near the place of some unsolved or at least unresolved murder, do some detective work of his own, and then put that down on paper in novel form.

Only this time, he's moved into one of the actual crime scene houses. Trying to calm his upset wife (Juliet Rylance) when she learns of his deception, he explains that the four previous residents were hung from a tree in the backyard and thus didn't actually die within the house. To make matters worse, he's found a box of old 8mm home movies with generic titles that have captured the hangings and other mass murders. Oh, and there's some sort of demonic figure fleetingly seen in all of them as well.

To no one's surprise, things start going bump in the night, and director Scott Derrickson -- working from a script he penned with C. Robert Cargill -- gets some limited mileage out of the tried and true technique of the protagonist hearing something, slowly walking through the house at night, and then having something startle him (and thus, hopefully, the viewer as well). The filmmakers also throw in material regarding the couple's kids (played by Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley), including that the boy suffers from night terrors, but it's not long before (and certainly isn't surprising when) some partially decomposed ghost kids also show up.

We've seen it all before, and the eventual supernatural explanation (from a professor who studies the occult) doesn't really add any creepiness, while the twist at the end shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen these sorts of flicks before. In fact, if you want to see a superb horror film about a writer starting to lose his mind while penning his latest work in a haunted building, go back and watch Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Shining."

While I can still get goose bumps just thinking of various scenes and visuals from that film (yes, they just showed up typing these words -- more than 30 years later), "Sinister" will leave your mind (and never come close to penetrating your psyche) moments after the end credits roll. Okay for a few decent jolts here and there but otherwise fairly humdrum in its recycling of standard horror movie conventions, the film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 9, 2012 / Posted October 12, 2012


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