Ethan Hawke's Ellison Oswald may have the coolest name of a film character this year, but he's having a streak of professional bad luck. His first true crime book, 'Kentucky Blood,' was a best seller than accomplished what the police couldn't do in tracking down a murderer at large. That was years ago, however, and his follow up books haven't just been duds, they've led to wrongful actions that have put the public at risk. There's little love for him among police captains, particularly of the small town where he's just schlepped his family.
If you've ever seen a horror movie, you should know what happens next. Don't ever move to a new house. That's one of the lessons of the goofy, yet effective, supernatural horror flick 'Sinister.'
Hawke's Oswald on the trail of another unsolved mystery, a family that was drugged and hung from a tree, all except the little girl who was never found again. It's his one last chance before he has to resort to t-t-t-teaching, plus his wife swears if he goes nuts with the all nighters and paranoia and drinking she's picking up the kids and moving to her sister's.
So the research begins. He's got files, he's got a cork board with yarn and...what's this? In the attic is a box with film reels and a projector. He's soon watching grainy 8mm footage of the family meeting their doom, as well as other families in different locations from different decades suffering a similar fate. They must be connected, but how?
Closer inspection of the film (with the lights down low and the music anticipatory) shows a smudged image that, if you look at it just right just when you can't take the tension anymore will BOOM! be a really scary face that'll make your date grab your forearm like this was Thriller.
Hawke's pursuit of the truth drives him to madness as it tears his family apart (yeah, he never bothered to tell his wife that they moved into the murder house) and soon this professional skeptic is worried he's brought an ancient Sumerian curse to his family.
'Sinister' has no shortage of dumb moments. Why oh why can't anyone just turn on the freakin' lights when they hear something to bump in the night? And why wouldn't this so-called investigator watch ALL of the spooky film strips immediately, and not space them out in a way that propels the screenplay?
The reason, of course, is because that's what only half-intelligent horror movies do. But for simple surface entertainment 'Sinister' is effective. Did you get creeped out at 'Insidious?' Did you yelp at the jump scares, then laugh when your friends razzed you? Then this is one you need to check out.
Props to the director, Scott Derrickson, working with what I imagine was a very low budget. Despite hardly ever leaving a handful of rooms, the movie doesn't feel cramped. Ethan Hawke is also quite effective in a very standard role. His natural charisma certainly elevates the material, as do the kid actors Clare Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario. D'Addario was also seen recently in the similarly slightly-better-than-it-had-to-be 'People Like Us.' Were I one to scout kid actors and make "ones to watch" lists, he'd certainly be on there.
'Sinister' is, on one level, about as dumb as a bag of hair, but it absolutely takes much craft to keep material like this energized. I give it a recommendation for a fun, shout-back-at-the-screen night out at the movies, but I strongly suggest it not be the sole focus of your evening's entertainment.
'Sinister' opens in theaters on October 12th.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.