In "Sinister," Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer who moves his family into the very home where a quadruple-murder took place. There, he'll make an unsettling discovery: a box of Super 8 movies and an old projector.
That's weird -- not because the cops missed it, but because horror movies are usually focused on cutting-edge technology like smartphones ("One Missed Call") and computer viruses ("Pulse"). New media can be scary because we don't yet understand it; who knows what lurks in those apps? But celluloid is such a warm, friendly old format that it seems unlikely to contain the spirit of, say, a child-eating demon. It's like imagining Satan hiding in your cassette deck.
An old-media twist is about the only new idea in "Sinister," which follows the standard blueprint: Oswalt's marriage to Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is strained; their son, Trevor (Hicksville's Michael Hall D'Addario), suffers night-terrors; their angelic daughter, Ashley (Clare Foley), paints creepy pictures. A friendly deputy (James Ransone) helps out with sleuthing, while the un-Earthly research comes from the usual university occultist (Vincent D'Onofrio, uncredited).
Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") directs with some flair, and Hawke digs surprisingly deep into his role as a fame-hungry writer. But the script, by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (a film-critic blogger; talk about new media!), is structured as a mystery whose answer we already know: The demon did it! Despite some effective bumps and frights, and at least one memorable jolt from a full-throated D'Addario, "Sinister" is mainly just a series of snuff-reels with sick-joke titles like "Pool Party" and "Barbeque." The movie is set in suburban Pennsylvania, but much of the filming took place on Long Island; the Oyster Bay villages of Muttontown, Matinecock and Upper Brookville are thanked in the credits.
PLOT A true-crime author moves his family into a house with a gruesome history. RATING R (violence, gruesome imagery)
CAST Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D'Addario
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE This locally filmed horror-flick is mostly unoriginal but occasionally effective; Hicksville's D'Addario, as a troubled preteen, provides some of the freakier moments.