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'Sinister' delivers sick, genuine terror

12:18 AM, Oct. 12, 2012
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Ethan Hawke in a scene from 'Sinister.' / Phil Caruso/Summit Entertainment

‘Sinister’

Star ratings:★ ★ ★
Rated: R for disturbing violent images and some terror.

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Too many horror movies just aren’t scary enough.

That may sound silly, but think about it. Too many comedies aren’t funny. Too many dramas aren’t dramatic. There are a million ways to make a bad movie; these are just some variations on a film not delivering what it ostensibly promises.

But “Sinister” — now this is a scary movie. And, given that it’s a horror film, that means it’s a good one, too. Ethan Hawke, who is on-screen for just about the whole thing, is really effective as a true-crime writer who gets a little too deep into researching his latest project. What director and co-writer Scott Derrickson’s film may lack in surprises, it more than makes up for in creepy atmosphere and honest-to-goodness scares.

It’s been 10 years since Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) had a hit book. He’s written a couple since, but even he seems to agree that they were hack work, trading on the success of the first, and he burned a lot of law-enforcement bridges in the process. (Fred Thompson is on hand as the local sheriff to voice disapproval of his presence.) Now Oswalt is moving with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and kids Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley) to a small town in Pennsylvania, where he plans to solve the mystery of a girl who went missing after the rest of her family was found hanging from a tree in their backyard.

The film opens with a grisly homemade movie depicting the tragedy. Oswalt finds a box in the attic of his new home, which also has a role in things, with 8mm footage of this and, to his and our horror, other murders, each of which also involve a single, missing child survivor. These films are grainy, startling and genuinely disturbing; this may be the first inventive take on found footage in a horror movie since the gimmick started showing up everywhere.

Disturbing also is Oswalt’s descent into obsession over the case. Clues begin to present themselves as he pores over the movies he’s found (or, maybe, which found him). He begins to ignore his family for both his work and the bottle of booze he keeps in his office. He gets a little help (and the film some comic relief) from the seemingly dim-bulb cop he dubs Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone). He also gets some insight into what may be a link between the killings from a professor at the local university (Vincent D’Onofrio) when it begins to appear that supernatural elements may be involved. A mysterious symbol seems to be present at the scenes of the crimes. And, truly scary, a bizarre figure shows up in shadows in each of them.

Derrickson gooses things with a few “gotcha!” moments, but the real horror here is found in the sick home movies and Oswalt’s reaction to them. He manages to make us feel as trapped as Oswalt in the halls and rooms of his home. And, of course, the attic.

Of course Oswalt should go to the authorities, but his early encounter with Thompson’s sheriff suggests that this wouldn’t go well. So he’s left to shoulder the load on his own. As is, for the most part, Hawke, which he does with assurance. “Sinister” is scary stuff, and all the more welcome because of it.

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