When a horror movie is damn bloody derivative, that's usually, in my book, a point against it. But Sinister, a mash-up of half a dozen other films, not only contains a few honestly terrifying jolts, it's also the rare horror movie that's just ingenious enough about stitching together everything it borrows to make its second-hand quality kind of fun. Ellison Oswalt, a celebrity author of true-crime novels played by Ethan Hawke at his most antsy and compelling, is a knockoff of Jack Torrance in The Shining: a writer struggling to produce, who likes his whiskey too much, whose work lures him toward mental instability, and who moves his wife and kids into a home where gruesome murders took place. A family was hanged, in burlap hoods, from a tree in the backyard, and Ellison is investigating the killings. We see the four bodies hanging and swaying, in grainy ''amateur'' footage, and there's an almost poetic eeriness to the image.
That shot is part of a film that Ellison discovers in the attic in a box of old 8mm reels, most of them from decades ago. The film canisters contain silent home movies of different families swimming, enjoying a barbecue, or not doing very much at all, and the footage is intercut with grisly snuff-movie images of each family getting slaughtered in a hideous fashion. It all looks a lot like the home movies the hero of Michael Mann's Manhunter uses to track down a serial killer and Ellison, for all his Torrance-like torment, is a lot like that film's FBI profiler. At the same time, he keeps freeze-framing the footage, combing it for a clue to the killer's identity, just like the hero of Blow-Up. What he starts to catch glimpses of is a face that looks more than a bit like a latter-day Michael Jackson. That is, if he'd returned from the dead to portray a goblin in Paranormal Activity 6.
My favorite thing about Sinister is derived from Ringu, though in a way that connects it to a film I didn't even care for that much: last summer's Super 8. It's the notion of grainy amateur footage, shot with a primitive, ramshackle camera, as a looking glass into the past the world of analog mystery. In Sinister, digital technology (like the computer onto which Ellison transfers the scratchy old films) is lit by rationality, whereas Super-8 footage, in its blurry shadings and fuzzy warm colors, has a lack of exactitude that allows it to contain ghosts. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, who made the misbegotten possession thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and he has basically made a don't-go-in-the-attic movie that deftly cannibalizes the horror genre without a hint of an ironic wink. I knew perfectly well, after a while, what Sinister was going to scare me with. But I got scared anyway. B