Ethan Hawke must miss the '90s. The one-time indie heartthrob forlornly wanders through this derivative, utterly unremarkable scare picture wearing a Cobain sweater and a goatee, perhaps as throwbacks to happier times. Hawke stars in Sinister as a washed-up, hard-drinking True Crime writer who has rather foolishly moved his family into a house where a massacre took place—for research purposes, of course.
In the attic, he discovers a Super-8 projector, along with several reels of quaintly labeled home movies that of course turn out to be snuff films. Instead of calling the police, Hawke naturally holes up with the first of many bottles of whiskey and watches the grisly footage ad infinitum. Things start getting strange around this possibly haunted house, and his kids are suddenly acting all sorts of weird.
Co-written by former Ain’t It Cool News contributor C. Robert Cargill, Sinister is pretty much exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to be penned by a film critic. Ascribing supernatural powers to the photographed image, it even pauses for a brief tutorial on old-school cut-and-splice film editing before resuming a laundry list of homages and influences. It’s a virtual encyclopedia of scenes and themes from other, better movies without an identity of its own.
The boozy writer Dad endangering his family is lifted wholesale from The Shining, while creepy ghost children striking static, eerie poses let us know that Cargill and director Scott Derrickson really dig Japanese horror—and check out that Linda Blair makeup! The one fresh element is an off-kilter comic turn by James Sansone as a star-struck deputy who doesn’t seem to understand sarcasm. But otherwise this is a cramped, dimly lit, underpopulated movie that takes almost two hours to tell an 80-minute story.
Indeed, most of the picture is Hawke hearing strange noises and glumly skulking around dark corridors in the house. Even the daytime scenes are shrouded in such deep shadows, you’re mainly left wondering why nobody ever just turns on the damn lights.