WHILE WE JOKINGLY wonder why people in haunted movie houses don't leave, we know we really don't want them to go.

Not the viewers and certainly not Hollywood, which would be nowhere without haunted houses, as it makes most of its easy money in the horror arena.

With that in mind, the industry has been looking for a bankable new franchise since the decline of the "Saw" series and the diminishing returns of the "Paranormal Activity."

It may have found a successor in "Sinister," a thoroughly familiar but slick and effective horror movie starring Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswald, a true-crime writer who moves into the home where a horrible murder occurred.

"Sinister" is quick to identify Oswald's fatal flaw: He's a one-time talent who's devolved into a hack and is eager to exploit the unsolved murders of the home's previous occupants, who were found hanged in their back yard, except for a little girl who went missing.

Oswald starts an obsessive investigation (a nod to "The Shining") that yields a disturbing links to larger pattern of family murder and a potential connection to an occult spirit that preys upon families.

The movie has some story problems. Oswald's attitude toward the (increasingly obvious) existence of the supernatural has erratic chronological flow. And "Sinister" is transparent - the surprise twist rolled out in its grisly epilogue is obvious about 10 minutes in.

On the other hand, it's technically very well done: handsome wide-screen presentation, an unusual and effective score and solid performances from an upscale cast. Hawke's portrait of mental deterioration is convincing, Fred Thompson is a quietly contemptuous local sheriff, and James Ransone's bumbling deputy adds comic relief with welcome dimension.

"Sinister" also borrows shrewdly, expanding on the found-footage gimmick in a way that manages to invoke both "Manhunter" and "The Ring." From "Saw," it borrows the idea that a durable franchise is built around brands, ghoulish icons and a portable story that can be carried from sequel to sequel, from expendable actor to expendable actor. This one has the potential to eliminate all former stars of "Dead Poet's Society."

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.