In a neat bit of poaching, Sinister uses a premise borrowed from anti-horror pundits—the idea that some images can’t be unseen once seen, are poison without antidote—as the basis of a proficient, rattling horror story. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a “true crime” writer who has been 10 years without a hit, moves his wife and two young’uns into a house whose previous tenants were mysteriously slaughtered, hoping to get a lead on the family’s still-missing daughter. That Oswalt manages to keep this bit of history secret from wife (Juliet Rylance) for as long as he does strains belief, but in every other respect, Hawke’s taut performance—lightly parodying his own career doldrums while playing an egotistical hack who’s a close cousin of John Cassavetes’s self-loathing actor in Rosemary’s Baby—is totally credible. A trove of profane 8mm home movies that Oswalt discovers in the attic links the events he’s investigating to a series of children’s disappearances, occult murders, and a corpse-painted boogeyman, as the addictive snuff imagery infects the house with mischievous spirits who, in one of many inventively crawly scenes, hide-and-go-seek scamper through the halls around worry-seamed and whiskey-addled Oswalt. Opposite Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio and James Ransone contribute excellent supporting bits, the latter as a comic-relief deputy, offbeat funny without resorting to obvious Keystone laughs, scarcely diluting the film’s sickish sense of a horror that begins at home.
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