Sinister begins with one of the year's most arresting pre-credit sequences. A Super 8 camera films four hooded people — a mom, a dad, and two older kids — standing under a tree. They have ropes around their necks, which are attached to a large branch above them. Then, in slow motion, an even larger branch on the opposite side of the frame breaks, hoisting the four bodies off the ground and into the air, where they kick for a few agonizing seconds before ceasing movement altogether. The word "sinister" appears in the lower right-hand corner over a freeze-frame of this now-tranquil tableau.
The aforementioned home movie — and some others like it — is discovered in the attic of the home purchased by struggling true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke). In a bizarre fit of inspiration, Oswalt has moved his own family into the house where the hangings took place. As Oswalt, Hawke spends most of the film sequestered in his office, watching and rewatching those creepy movies and coming out only to investigate the numerous things that go bump in the night.
If you're willing to make a few leaps in logic, Sinister is an effective modern haunted-house story. Plus, Christopher Young's scratchy soundtrack and director Scott Derrickson's unobtrusive camera work lead to the best pure shock I've seen in theaters this year. There's some gallows comedy as well, from names of the mysterious home movies to the deadpan diffidence of Fred Dalton Thompson as an unimpressed Pennsylvania state trooper.
Now playing, multiple locations