It’s bad enough that Ellison Oswald has moved his family into the house where four people were gruesomely killed only recently.
Even worse, the place has a spooky old attic with a mystery box full of Super 8 films of unspeakable content.
But the clincher is that this house is the darkest home in America. Even when Ellison remembers to turn on the lights, which he forgets to do with unnerving frequency in a building where mass killings take place, the joint is dim, murky and otherwise drenched in gloom.
But “Sinister” is that kind of horror movie, the kind in which perfectly intelligent people absolutely refuse to turn the lights on even when there might be ghosts or maniacs on the prowl.
Actually, Ellison (played by Ethan Hawke) has one good reason for the darkness: He spends a lot of time poring over those Super 8 movies. He’s a true-crime writer whose last couple of books flopped, and he’s moved his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two kids into an actual crime scene.
The films, he knows, might provide clues that could make this into a headline-grabbing case. It seems the four previous residents who ended up hanging from that tree in the back yard weren’t the only family touched by murder; the evidence is all on film.
Something very strange has been going on all these years. But the more he gets into the case, the more he loses his own grip on sanity, or at least begins questioning the self-centered reasons he got into being a writer. The movie plays like a junior version of “The Shining,” in fact.
A lot of explanation for the mystery is haunted-house movie boilerplate, but give credit to director Scott Derrickson (he directed the lousy “The Day the Earth Stood Still” remake) and writer C. Robert Cargill for taking their time with this material and layering in a good bit of psychological realism.
They also had the sense to hire a bona fide actor, Hawke, to supply the dramatic goods (and Rylance is easily his match).
Just enough local color around the edges is provided by sheriff Fred Dalton Thompson, occultist Vincent D’Onofrio and curious deputy James Ransome.
Almost the entire movie takes place inside the Oswalds’ new house. This is a good strategy for fear, as the claustrophobia (and the possibility that those Super 8 images might have a strange power of their own) really bears down toward the end.
Even with the letdown of the ultimate explanation, this one’s effectively done.
“Sinister” (3 stars)
A true-crime author (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house where a grisly crime took place, only to find — surprise surprise — that the house isn’t finished with evil yet. The ultimate explanations for these high jinks are haunted-house boilerplate, but along the way the movie does raise some gooseflesh.
Rated: R for violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.