Getting a head start on the scary movie season, Sinister is a by-the-numbers supernatural thriller that has plenty of jolts up its, um, sinister sleeve.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime novelist who moves his family into a home where the previous family was mysteriously murdered (mistake #1). His marriage already under stress, Ellison doesn’t tell his wife about the house’s horrid history (mistake #2). Desperate to churn out another bestseller that could resolve his financial problems, his fledgling reputation and his bruised ego, Ellison dives into his research late at night (mistake #3) with a bottle of whiskey by his side (mistake #4). Upon poking around in the attic after hearing strange noises (mistake #5), Ellison stumbles upon a box of vintage 8-millimeter film reels and decides to watch them (mistake #6). What seem like innocent memories of different families (“BBQ,” “Pool Time”) soon turn into gruesome footage of each family’s grisly demise. And little does Ellison know he has unleashed an evil being that threatens to include his family in the next installment of the horrific film collection.

Director Scott Derrickson doesn’t waste any time establishing a creepy tone. The film silently opens with grainy found footage that is as chilling as it is disturbing. Thankfully, the words “based on actual events” are nowhere to be seen (because that would be just silly, not to mention trite). From there, the first act nicely sets the dread-filled stage, incorporating an effectively minimalist score that leaves viewers tense throughout, constantly waiting for the scary shit to hit the fan. What seems like another Amityville Horror ripoff turns out to be more than just a series of haunted house trappings. Sure, there are creaky floorboards and one obvious red herring, but praise the horror gods for lightening up on the fake scares and cliched tropes. Much like last year’s Insidious, creepy kids come into play (who doesn’t love a creepy child?), but that’s about the only horror standard that’s exploited here.

As for the acting, the above-average performances keep this flick afloat. This is definitely Hawke’s show, and he’s compelling as a self-tortured writer who doesn’t quite have his priorities straightened out. Juliet Rylance stands in as his wife, Tracy, and the strain in their relationship is apparent in key scenes of domestic strife. Vincent D’Onofrio pops up as an occult exper (i.e. Guy Who Explains the Origin of the Demon) who consults Ellison via Skype (talk about an easy acting gig — no need to work on set). And Fred Dalton Thompson plays the sheriff of the small Pennsylvanian town with just the right amount of gruff cynicism. But it’s James Ransone (The Wire, How to Make it in America) who stands out, offering some slight comic relief and a voice of reason as Deputy So-and-So (a nickname created by Hawke’s character). His deputy is small-town cop who is eager to assist Ellison on his mission to connect all the bloody dots behind the murder cases. He’s an enjoyable sidekick to watch, despite his limited screen time, a geeky-cute helper who (SPOILER ALERT) doesn’t get killed in the process — how nice and refreshing.

3.5/5 stars

Hiko Mitsuzuka (@TheFirstEcho)