Sinister opens with the image, rendered in faux-Super 8, of four hooded figures hung from a tree in what has just become the Osborne family’s backyard. True crime author Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke) is the only one who knows that his family is moving into a crime scene, but for him it’s just business; it’s been ten years since his last bestseller and Ellison figures rooting himself right in the very place where some truly evil shit went down, a large house tucked away in a wood, with no apparent neighbours anywhere in the vicinity, is the surest way to spin literary gold.
But before you can say “Overlook Hotel” the place is already giving off bad vibes: there are exotic pest control issues and things going bump, very loudly, in the night; Ellison’s son is sleepwalking, sleep-contorting and sleep-screaming, while Ellison’s daughter’s painting creepy things on the walls; and there’s a stash of home movies in the attic that each depict some sort of creatively staged mass murder, with hints of occult activity in the margins. Gradually these movies yield more and more glimpses of some shadowy, dark-haired figure in black and white makeup, always lurking in the background—it’s like “Where’s Waldo?” for Goths. And it’s with the emergence of this figure, who comes to be known as Mr. Boogie, that we come to understand that no matter how effectively photographed, nicely paced and well-cast Sinister is, it’s eventually going to get really, really dumb.
The script is from C. Robert Cargill, the direction by Scott Derrickson, who previously brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I felt somewhat warm toward, and that remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I don’t think anybody felt anything toward. When you take away all the Mr. Boogie and the demon kiddies and supernatural hokum, the essential story of Sinister isn’t too bad, but the lack of ambiguity and corny special effect bits drain it of all credibility and real suspense, and all the time spent building Ellison’s potent character—he’s at once a loving father and a mercilessly ambitious and frustrated author—ends up being for nothing since the destiny of he and his family has little to do with any character flaws and everything to do with cheap, ultimately nonsensical twists.