(Momentum Pictures)

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WHEN the publicity material for a horror film promises genuine terror, alarm bells start ringing and I instantly recall every frustrated occasion when I have sat through a movie that failed to deliver even the slightest shiver up my spine.

There are also concerns when a film declares itself to be “from the producers of…” rather than “directed by”, because audiences would rather hear that Sinister was produced by Jason Blum (Insidious and Paranormal Activity 1, 2 and 3) instead of being directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still).

So the combination of these factors probably put me in a much more pessimistic frame of mind than I like to be when reviewing a film, which meant I was pleasantly surprised by what unfolded on my TV screen instead of being crushingly disappointed as is so frequently the case.

True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) strives to recapture his biggest success, the bestselling Kentucky Blood, and sneakily moves his British wife (Juliet Rylance) and two children into a house which was the scene of a brutal slaughter of a couple and two of their kids several years ago - with the third child mysteriously disappearing - and stumbles across a box of Super 8 film in the attic which shows a series of violent murders. So far so good, and an innovative way of using the old “found footage” genre in a new way.

These snuff films portray a smorgasbord of grisly deaths including drownings, slashings, burnings and hangings, and stretch back to the 1960s. They also all involve missing kids and feature an apparently supernatural boogeyman popping up in the films, part clown, part ghoul, who may still be at work in the present day...

Unfortunately lead protagonist Oswalt comes across as arrogant, selfish and ultimately unlikeable, which subverts any possibility of audience empathy and understanding, while his wife, who manages to sleep through any number of supernatural activities, just seems remarkably subservient after letting her husband move their family to a home she hasn’t even seen photos of.

Derrickson lazily relies on a checklist of horror film staples for cheap scares, which is a shame as the snuff movies themselves are actually pretty chilling, and the pace of the film unfolds with a growing sense of menace and intrigue, but ultimately there is nothing here to leave you unable to turn off the light afterwards.

Over-hyped, gratuitously violent, and never really that terrifying, Sinister isn’t as good as it wants to be, but at the same time isn’t as bad as I feared. Make of that what you will.

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