A horror movie can be like an old apartment you just moved into. All it needs is a fresh coat of paint. “Sinister” is kind of like that. It basically moves into a house formerly occupied by dozens of cheap little chillers and makes a few small repairs. That tired new-family-in-an-old house routine? Those terrible shots of children, bats, etc. jumping out of nowhere for no reason? The obsession with juvenilia? They’re all still here, but the filmmakers have emptied the genre of most of its recent tics. The clichés are still clichés. They’ve just been renovated.
So when Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke), his wife (Juliet Rylance), son (Michael Hall D’Addario), and daughter (Clare Foley) unpack in an extra-strength Pennsylvania ranch house, we expect to see telltale scribble-scrabble, maybe a few undead kids, and probably some demonic body contortions (downward devil!). But the makers of this movie — Scott Derrickson directed from a script by C. Robert Cargill — appear to have thought about how to keep a mediocre horror movie from going bad.
They’ve seen “Jeepers Creepers II,” “Silent Hill,” and anything involving an exorcism or made in Asia then remade by Hollywood, and they’ve removed all the aural clutter and visual noise. Now when Ellison walks toward a box and a body rises twisted from between its flaps, there’s no cut that says, “Psych, you guys! It was just a dream!” That’s the movie’s big trick (it happens at least three times) and, sitting in a packed house that’s waiting for a resetting cut that never arrives is fun. The Osbornes’ tension is ours, and that feels good.
And yet this is still a cheap chiller. It just hits that sweet visceral spot of dread more accurately than its cousins. Ellison has moved his family to this house to finish a new work of true crime about a series of murders, the most recent of which occurred in its backyard. Each of the killings was filmed with a Super 8 camera and left, along with a projector, for Ellison’s viewing pleasure. They have mock-innocent titles like “Pool Party ’86,” and the seamlessness between what’s real and what’s been filmed is clever.
But eventually — and I mean by about the second Super 8 viewing — the evil in the celluloid and the movie-theater metaphors (attic as projection booth, that sort of thing) start to feel like propaganda for digital filmmaking the way, say, “Poltergeist” was a warning against TVs. As much as “Sinister” wants to tell a story, there isn’t much of a story to be told. For an investigative reporter, Ellison doesn’t really do much interviewing or investigating. That’s outsourced to a wily young cop (James Ransone) who finds an occult expert (Vincent D’Onofrio). All Ellison does is start to lose his mind.
And here you get a movie that aspires to be some kind of self-conscious amalgam of “In Cold Blood” and “The Shining.” It doesn’t happen even though Hawke is ready, willing, and able to take us there. He’s just stuck in a movie that’s pleased to have professionally painted over what’s come before it. The paint is welcome, but it’s not enough.