True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) arrives in a small town with his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two kids -- Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) -- in tow, preparing to work on his latest book. He's writing about a family of four that was murdered, hung simultaneously from a tree, after which the youngest daughter disappeared. Unfortunately, Ellison has chosen to move into the murder house itself, where he finds a box of Super 8 films that depict the actual murder, as well as several others. As he pieces the puzzle together, strange and terrifying things begin to happen. Ellison's life becomes a race to finish the book before he and his family become too deeply involved in a deadly situation.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson has a touch for using old horror movie tools to create new scares, and he also incorporates several interesting themes into SINISTER. Even if some of his attempts don't quite work some of the time, he still gets credit for trying. To start, he's created an interesting character in Ellison, who's struggling between recapturing his former glory and keeping his family safe, pulled helplessly in two directions at once. And Hawke -- wearing a funny, puffy "grandpa" sweater and shoes -- emphasizes a fascinating clash between courage and weakness in his performance.
Derrickson does pack too many concepts into his story, mixing the supernatural with the mysterious, and it doesn't quite come together; the themes become jumbled up by the final payoff. But the movie has some terrifying, startling moments, mainly thanks to a crafty, strangely prickly music score by Christopher Young. Sinister won't hold up to scrutiny, but it's worth a look for horror fans.