A word of advice: If you ever stumble onto a serial killer’s personal records of his crimes, turn them over to the police. Don’t keep them in your home and stay up late examining them night after night.

Ellison Oswalt might have saved himself a lot of trouble had he done that. But then, if you’re buying a ticket to Sinister, you’ve come to get the wits scared out of you. And reasonable behavior just isn’t on the menu for characters in this genre.

The title Sinister should tell you what you need to know: It’s spooky. Spooky like a haunted house, but not all-out bloody like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Spooky like a ghost story that leaves the worst to your imagination.

Worthwhile horror movies are best kept under wraps so that the viewer has as much opportunity to be surprised — okay, scared silly — as possible. So I’m going to stick to a basic plot description. Beyond that, I’ll just assure you that if you like horror movies, you’re likely to be satisfied, even impressed, with this jolt-a-thon. Moreover, you’ll get more than you’ve been led to expect from the genre. Sinister is one of those rare scary movies that are actually about something.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that Sinister is not only director Scott Derrickson’s most fully realized vision but also his most personal film so far. That may sound strange, considering that this is a film in which a family gets hung by the neck in the backyard and others face even more dreadful demises. But it’s true.

Here’s my full disclosure: Derrickson is a friend of mine. So, take that into account as you read this review.

Now, here’s my promise to you, reader: I don’t give my friends any breaks. Nor am I swayed into liking a movie by forces beyond the movie itself. I’ve been treated like royalty at press events for feature films, only to turn around and condemn the movie on opening day. (Remember Constantine?) What else could I do and maintain any integrity as a critic? To be completely frank: While Derrickson’s first big movie haunts me to this day, his second one didn’t really work for me. (I caught more than a whiff of studio tyranny over that production, but nevertheless, I’m not giving it an extra star just because I know the guy who directed it.)

Are you with me? Okay. Let’s talk about Sinister

The movie has a somewhat familiar set-up: Like The Shining and The Dark HalfSinister is about the living hell of being a self-absorbed writer. More specifically, it’s about a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) who puts himself and his family at risk as he researches a series of murders in the hope of achieving his own personal In Cold Blood. But sure enough, the farther he ventures into the dark of his own vanity, the more nightmares leap at him from the shadows.

Ethan Hawke is the best reason to see Sinister. His increasingly creased (in-creased?) face is a marvelous subject for a horror filmmaker. In the daylight, he’s still handsome, bearing a faint resemblance to that timid and sympathetic student he played in Dead Poet’s Society more than 25 years ago. But put him in a house so shadowy that the walls and carpets seem to seep oil, and his expressions come alive with deep chasms of anxiety.

What’s wrong with the house? Well, Oswalt is a true-crime writer so dedicated to his craft that he’ll live — yea, move his family into — a home in which a family has been butchered in unsolved crimes. And he won’t bother to tell them. Even when his wife gets worried. Even when it becomes obvious that his children aren’t exactly sleeping peacefully. And he pays no heed to local law enforcement, who would prefer to see him pack up his project and leave the area.

(I gotta say, if Ellison’s partly responsible for the troubles that soon plague the family, so is his wife, who seems all too quick to let him have his way on matters as important as, say, moving the whole family to a new location.)

Oswalt’s tunnel vision may blind him to his own increasing folly. But I’m left wondering how he ever wrote a bestseller in the first place. In his research journals, he seems prone to scribbling down only the most obvious questions. When he discovers a box labeled “Home Movies” in the attic, and then finds that these movies contain horrific documentation of a killer’s crimes, he takes the time to jot down “WHO MADE THE FILMS?” When he has a real epiphany, I suspect he double-underlines it and adds several exclamation points.

But that’s only the beginning of Oswalt’s aggravating habits. He seems to have locked himself in a cage of self-denial, unable to see that his obsessions are already leading to the very self-destructive behavior he promised his wife he’d avoid. His dutiful nods to his children are about as good as it gets for them; soon he’s shutting a door in his daughter’s face after she brings him a cup of coffee brewed to his specifications.

So, yeah, the lead character’s such an ass that we’re almost rooting for the Wages of Sin to come marching in and teach him a lesson.

And oh, boy, do the Wages of Sin come marching in.

Manifesting themselves more in sound than in apparitions, they play this house like a pipe organ. Admirably, Derrickson refrains from bludgeoning the audience with sound blasts, instead creating a concert of creaks, groans, rushes of wind, clattering leaves, fluttering film-strip reels, hysterical children, spooky musical cues, and collapsing floorboards. As haunted houses go, this one is beautifully noisy.

The cast is well chosen, keeping our focus on Hawke while giving their characters just enough detail to convince us. Giving us some much-needed comic relief, James Ransone of The Wire and Treme almost steals the movie with only a few short scenes. If there are sequels, I hope that his twitchy, good-natured police officer becomes a recurring character. Fred Dalton is always an authoritative presence in a film, but here he brings a touch of menace to the proceedings. As Mrs. Oswalt, Juliet Rylance is as warm and reassuring as Hawke is reckless and blundering. (Still, I couldn’t help but dream of a cameo by Julie Delpy.) And the children — Clare Foley (Win Win) and Michael Hall D’Addario (People Like Us) — are persuasive in both domestic and disturbing scenes.

On the appearance of Vincent D’Onofrio, I thought I could guess where this movie might take us. And I almost wish, in retrospect, that my guess had been right. What if the author’s true crime novels had disturbed and infuriated readers in this community with their lurid details? What if those readers had staged the “home movies” in order to say “You’re gonna give us nightmares? Well, right back atcha!”

No such luck. The murders in this story are meant to be taken seriously, and the secrets, when revealed, will be the stuff that launches a franchise — usually the kind with diminishing returns. It’s all going to come down to the usual questions: Who committed these acts of butchery, and why?

The answer is a good one. Yes, truly monstrous forces are at work here. But there’s also a cautionary tale unfolding, one writ in capital letters like Oswalt’s own research. What conjured this devilry? What provoked a killer to carry out such bloodshed in the first place?

Yes, this is a grisly film. And yet, Derrickson exercises admirable restraint. I’m not just talking about the budget (although how he made this movie for only $3 million, I have no idea). By trusting the power of moviegoers’ imaginations, he leaves a lot of the more horrific details offscreen. In doing so, he almost ensures that this experience will stick with us, because we have been drawn into not only watching but participating.

What does end up onscreen is a tale of woe upon those who blindly pursue fame and fortune. And that’s where the film appears to gets downright personal for Derrickson.

Right away, I noticed the hair, the goatee, the glasses. Can it be accidental that Hawke looks so much like Derrickson himself in this film?

Hawke’s playing an author whose previous book Kentucky Blood was a huge success, but he hasn’t been able to match it in the ten years following. And isn’t Derrickson hoping to make something that fulfills the promise of his first big hit, The Exorcism of Emily Rose?

Oswalt’s obsessed with dark subject matter, and if he’s going to make something of it, he’ll have to bring his family with him. Surely, the director of a film about demon possession has to wonder what he’s asking his family to accept in his day-to-day activities and research.

Oswalt’s watching deeply disturbing material over and over again in his attic. Surely a horror filmmaker has to wonder, sometimes, about the effect of such interests on his own peace of mind.

And then there’s the source of Oswalt’s inspiration. Lo and behold, it isn’t just scary stories — it’s scary movies. The more those Super 8 reels roll, the more he finds himself haunted, distracted, distressed. One has to wonder what kind of toll it took on Derrickson, spending so much time marinating in the source material for Emily Rose.

Maybe I’m reaching, but Oswalt looks to me like Derrickson’s vision of his worst possible self. I imagine that it would be a challenge to be a good husband and a father in the filmmaking industry. Especially if your films are successes that lead to larger opportunities and increasing demands. Especially if those films involve ideas that you’d rather your kids not think about all day.

Whatever the case, Sinister works best as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and single-mindedness. It’s a solid genre exercise, and in view of the countless disposable contributions to this genre in recent years, it’s better than any horror devotee is likely to expect.

But that shouldn’t surprise those who have followed Derrickson’s career. The Exorcism of Emily Rose was an extremely ambitious film, one that dared moviegoers to look beyond the scares and ask themselves what they really believe about demonic powers. His script for Wim Wenders’ film Land of Plenty was even more interesting in its examination of patriotic paranoia and Christian peacemaking in the aftermath of 9/11. Derrickson is a director who is not content to merely trouble his audiences; he wants to give us the sort of transformative nightmare that makes us stronger, that makes such dreams less likely to come true.

The next time we see his name onscreen, it’ll be a screenwriting credit on Atom Egoyan’s upcoming feature film about the West Memphis Three. He intends to investigate what led to the wrongful conviction of three young men, what happened to the community in the aftermath, and what led to the release of those prisoners more than a decade later. And as with Sinister and Emily Rose, I suspect we’ll see that sensational acts of violence are, while shocking, only a symptom of much larger and more unsettling problems.

Unpleasant as horror movies can be, we need them. We need gifted artists to give us grand nightmares, just as we need good surgeons to expose diseases and to teach us how to treat and, better, prevent them.


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