SINISTER has the all too rare virtue of being a horror film with a fine gloss of originality and genuine surprise to it. Rather than going for the usual assortment of jump-and-scare tactics, it broods atmospherically on the evil that humankind is capable of, and not necessarily the gruesome acts of violence on which the central character, a formerly successful true-crime writer, makes the focus of his work. No, the evil arises in the countless small acts of betrayal, secrecy, and hostility that people visit on one another in the course of a day, particularly those perpetrated on those nearest and dearest. The supernatural, when it steps in, seems like it has been invited, rather than randomly targeting a hapless victim.
The writer is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), and to write what he hopes will be his comeback tome, he has moved his family into the house where the crime he is investigating actually took place. Not that he told that to his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance). When she demands to know if their new house is a few doors down from the crime scene, like their last one was, Ellison truthfully answers in the negative. That they care for one another is established easily, and so are the first signs that caring is not enough to save this marriage. Juliet resents having to negotiate the strange looks she is going to get at the supermarket, and frets about their lack of money, a problem that could be solved if Ellison would take a job and give up writing. Son Trevor is a twelve-year-old with night terrors and a self-defeating attitude towards the way his new classmates will treat him once they find out what his father is doing in town. His daughter, a budding and talented artist of 10 or so, is inconsolable about leaving her old home and her friends. The local police aren’t making it any easier, with the sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) dropping by to advise Ellison that it might be better for him to change his plans and move back to where he came from instead of writing a book that will make his department look as bad as others that have been featured in Ellison’s books.
When Ellison finds that strange box in the otherwise empty attic, the one marked “home movies” and containing Super-8 reels depicting in gruesome detail the crime he is writing about as well as four others equally horrific, he decides that the police, who have already weighed in with their opinion of him, won’t help. He’s also convinced that this case will be his ticket back to the best-seller lists, and maybe even a movie deal that will end his money problems forever.
The most potent image in SINISTER is that of Hawke stalking through his house in the dead of night, wielding a baseball bat and visibly trembling at the thought of meeting the intruder he is convinced has invaded the peace of his home. By now the audience knows that a baseball bat, or even a gun, won’t help him overcome what is lurking, but the juxtaposition of a well-meaning man taking the wrong weapon into a battle he has inadvertently invited but can’t hope to win provides unnerving suspense and terror on many levels. Hawke is equal to the task at hand as a man barely holding on to the promise of his earlier self while fighting despair and the bottle as he chases one more dream. As Ellison watches tapes of cheesy interviews from his successful days, hunger and derision play across his face with an effective subtlety.
Also effective is the straightforward approach taken by director and co-writer Scott Derrickson. He has a fine sense of the timing needed to make even a sunrise sinister before it’s revealed as such to an audience already on tenterhooks. Even the necessary exposition avoids the usual trap of being clunky. Vincent D’Onofrio in an unaccredited role as the de rigeur college professor with a penchant for occult topics has a rumpled giddiness as his character warms to the subject, and James Ransone as the local deputy provides a hint of comic relief with his star-struck attitude towards the author he admires and longs to befriend.
SINISTER has fine performances, smart and solid writing, and a brisk sense of horror that never flags. It leaves itself open for a sequel, as is, alas, the way of all films of this ilk, but that is as close to a cliché as this fine exercise in suspense goes.