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posted: 10/11/2012 6:00 AM

'Sinister' a disappointing horror tale with a slow fuse, minimal payoff

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  • Writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) tries to burn away his troubles by destroying old Super-8 movies in the horror film "Sinister."

    Writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) tries to burn away his troubles by destroying old Super-8 movies in the horror film "Sinister."

  • Video: Sinister trailer


The sorry state of scary movies right now boils down to this: Nothing on the silver screen of late comes close to matching the raw power, raspy inventiveness and sheer twisted imagination of the pilot for the FX channel's "American Horror Story."

Not even "Sinister," Scott Derrickson's new psychological thriller set in a suburban haunted house where yet another writer goes bat-bonkers (didn't Jack Nicholson already mine that field to death in "The Shining"?), and his poor family gets threatened by nasty supernatural forces.

Still, "Sinister" packs one of the most effective and disturbing marketing campaigns since "The Blair Witch Project."

Derrickson, the writer/director of the indie mini-hit "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," laces this slow-fuse project (based on an idea supplied by Ain't It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill) with lots of explosive noises and flash-glimpses of murder and mayhem to keep us awake.

But there's not much here in the way of sympathetic characters and well-constructed suspense to keep us interested. Not that interested.

In short, you can leave those Depends at home for this one.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswald, a writer on the hunt for his next best-seller. Ten years have passed since his true crime book "Kentucky Blood" made him a trade name. He's just a little desperate for another big hit.

To that end, he moves his family to a house where the previous family has been killed during a mass hanging from the big tree in their back yard. (We witness this ghastly execution at the story's beginning, presented as an old-fashioned home movie shot on Super-8 celluloid.)

Ellison doesn't tell his devoted wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) about the house's history or why he got the place so cheap. She doesn't care that much, as long as their daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) and son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) are kept out of Dad's sometimes grisly office.

Ellison attempts to make sense out of the murders and discover what happened to the young daughter who disappeared without a trace. (Any horror fan can probably figure out how this story will end by this point.)

Then he finds an old Super-8 projector in the attic with five reels of home movies, virtual snuff films, each one more gruesome and horrible than the last. (We're forced to watch the hanging scene all over again, except now it's been robbed of its shock value by being squandered as an easy, out-of-context introductory sequence.)

What are those strange symbols in the movies? Who, or what, is the mysterious figure who resembles the masked "Scream" killer? How did this figure get into all those movies stretching over six decades?

By now, Ellison starts hitting the whiskey with regularity, and the strange noises in the house begin to slowly unnerve him. Christopher Young's throbbing, scratching, aching, grasping electronic score accentuates Ellison's deteriorating mental state.

Then, Derrickson commits a major narrative faux pas by showing us the deformed ghosts of children who haunt the house, but always duck out of sight before Ellison can see them.

It's almost comically timed, and now that the spirits are on camera in full close-ups, "Sinister" surrenders a big chunk of its mystery and allure. Plus, we are no longer experiencing the house's escalating horror through Ellison's eyes. but through some ill-defined, clinically omniscient perspective.

At the end of Tuesday night's preview of "Sinister," a man in the audience shouted, "I want my money back!" People laughed because it was a free screening.

By the way, the season premiere of "American Horror Story" is Oct. 17.

Maybe we can be afraid again.

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