Give the makers of Sinister credit for one thing: They don't attempt to pass off this supernatural malarkey as being based upon or inspired by true events. That doesn't make Sinister a better movie, only a more honest one than usual for a genre that just won't die.
Sinister displays no ambition to generate terror other than the usual sonic stings and abrupt intrusions into the camera frame. The same effect is obtained cheaper by having someone follow you around and occasionally shriek in your ear, or slam a door behind your back. You flinch, giggle at the reflex, and wonder why this stuff still works on some people.
Director Scott Derrickson doesn't reinvent the torture wheel here, relying upon the interchangeable details of this cinematic species. Everything here is something we've seen before.
None of this sinister stuff would happen if a family didn't move into a new home that's possessed. (I'm waiting for an economist to announce this broken-record plot point has an adverse effect on the U.S. housing industry.) We have not one but two children acting weird and worse as a result of said possession. They're being protected in vain by their father, who of course is a struggling writer since occupational curiosity usually kills those cats in these movies.
The writer is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), whose last true-crime best seller was 10 years ago, and he needs new inspiration. The house Ellison moves his family into was the scene of a multiple lynching years before. The real estate agent apparently didn't consider removing the tree limbs used to execute the murders, to enhance curb appeal.
Checking out the attic, Ellison discovers a box filled with Super 8mm film cans, each marked with titles like "lawn work," "pool party" and "hanging around." The titles have gruesome double meanings, as Ellison learns by watching and Derrickson enjoys displaying, in grainy footage so illogically occult that it contains its own musical score when all we should hear is the clack of a projector.
Sinister is basically a collection of bogus snuff films linked by standard haunted house tricks — everything creaking and slamming, with the power conveniently shut off.
Yet there are a couple of cheesy performances to appreciate: Hawke is effective as Ellison, our terrified tour guide through the hoo-hah, allowing his inner Jack Torrance to shine. Vincent D'Onofrio makes an unbilled Skype cameo in Orson Welles mode, gravely explaining the mystery for the benefit of slow learners. That would be anyone expecting to find originality here.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.