Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Clare Foley, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Victoria Leigh 16 cert, general release, 110 min
THE SET-UP couldn’t be more cliched if the hero were actually moving into a house where a grisly murder once took place. Oh, hang on. That is the scenario.
Not to worry. Scott Derrickson’s follow up to the undistinguished The Day the Earth Stood Still offers some effective variations on familiar horror tropes. Here is proof that if you pull the wires in interesting ways you don’t need a new puppet show. Even the film’s title is solid and generic.
A terrific opening sequence – apparently shot on small gauge film – shows a family being hanged gruesomely from the branch of a tree. We then encounter Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke), a true-
crime writer, moving into a new house with his wife and two children. (We know he’s a writer because he wears an old cardigan and heavy-framed spectacles.)
Before Ellison has time to settle in, the local sheriff – another creaky twist – makes it clear that he is not welcome. This is, of course, the house where the hangings took place and the locals are uncomfortable with Ellison’s plans to investigate the deaths. He has not told his wife why the home was such good value and, rather implausibly, she doesn’t discover the truth until late in the film.
The horror hangs around a series of film canisters that the protagonist discovers in the attic. Each points him towards another murder that appears connected to the primary atrocity.
It is unfortunate that the child- murdering spectre – glimpsed darkly in the corner of much footage – bears such a resemblance to Michael Jackson. This is, after all, not a tricksy post-modern affair, but a straight-up shocker bolstered by well-balanced jolts and enhanced by a decent cast that manages to keep a straight face even in the presence of ghost-train spooks. Sinister also features a neat finale that ties up loose ends while grimly pointing towards future catastrophes.
Sure, it sounds a bit like The Shining and looks a bit like Secret Window. But who wants to learn their way around an unfamiliar story? Slip it on and savour the comforting discomfort.