Sinister goes about as far as a horror movie can with just shocking images, a good cast and outstanding sound design. But this modestly creepy blend of The Ring and The Shining fails on a horror film fundamental: Nobody seems that scared.
What fear there exists is faced by one person, and he's very slow to get alarmed about the things that go bump in the night and the bogeyman he thinks he catches a glimpse of many times.
But Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime author in desperate need of a hit, doesn't tell his wife and family that he's moved them into a house that was the scene of a mass murder. He sees nothing weird in the fact he finds old home movies of a whole family hanged and many other murders, and the projector that will show them, all out in the open at what was a one-time crime scene.
He is shocked at the images of mass drownings, group throat-slittings and immolation, and the pale satanic figure that turns up in those silent 8- millimeter movies. But he doesn't recoil and flee the house where his boy has night terrors, his daughter is doing strange drawings on the wall and his wife (a fierce Juliet Rylance) wonders what's going on.
"This could be my In Cold Blood!" Ellis insists. It'll be a hit book, make them rich and give them "that happy ending" he longs for. Right.
Because a lot of his noisy, plainly supernatural encounters happen in the dark of night, you'd think that a.) the rest of the family would be awakened by this racket unless b.) this horror is happening inside his head, a la The Shining. No.
Since Ellis tends to belittle law enforcement in his books, the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) has made him most unwelcome upon arrival. But that doesn't rule out help from his department; a deputy (James Ransone) is available. If only Ellis would ask.
But logical lapses aside, Sinister telegraphs its punches, letting the viewer mentally count down the seconds until the next, obvious cheap jolt or hair-raising flicker of what is "out there." We can time out how long it will be before someone — a researcher (Vincent D'Onofrio, reached via Skype) — comes along to explain who or what is haunting his house.
Co-writer and director Scott Derrickson forgets that what we don't see, or only glimpse, is far more frightening than trotting out things that simply cannot be and giving away the game. We see too much.
Still, a tip of the hat to sound designers Mark Aramian and Dane A. Davis, who concocted a static-filled, scratchy old music-loop aural milieu for this spookiness. The silent movies are chillingly scored with their effects and Christopher Young's music.
If Sinister looked and played as insidious as the soundtrack suggests, they'd have had something — another Insidious, for instance. They don't.