When it comes to horror films, I pretty much have one rule: if the film actually scares me, that's enough for a modest recommendation. If it has strong characters, whose lives I would actually like to not see snuffed out by the end of the film, then it will receive even more praise. SINISTER director Scott Derrickson made a particularly frightening little movie a few years back called THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, which I was a big fan of for the reason I mention above. Then he went on to do the especially appalling remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Not a fan, at all. Now he (and co-writer C. Robert Cargill) have concocted a clever take on the found footage wave that is sweeping horror films today, thanks in large part to the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. Only this time, the movie is the story of the guy who actually finds and watches said footage, and the price he pays for his unbridled curiosity.
Naturally the man in question is a writer who is having trouble getting his next crime novel started. It just so happens that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke; and give me a break with that name) has moved into a house in which murders have occurred (something he knows, but he neglects to tell his family), and he's hoping for a little inspiration and material out of that fact. But a box of film reels in the attic reveals some terrifying and nasty truths about the handful of murders, and just his watching them seems to open up some nasty possibilities in his own reality.
So is the film scary? I certainly thought so. But what's most interesting is that the scares are spread apart more than I would have suspected, and what's put in between is a strong drama that involves Oswalt's family (wife Juliet Rylance, daughter Clare Foley, and son Michael Hall D'Addario, most recently seen in PEOPLE LIKE S) and his stifled creative process.
If you haven't figured it out already, SINISTER is simply owned by Hawke's solid work as a not-always-likable guy who is both trying to protect his family and his career, but the more he fuels his creative juices with these films, the greater the danger becomes. But this is the type of Hawke character that I love--squirrelly, guilty, so sure of his own self-worth that everyone else can go to hell.
But once we meet the real villain, a figure who appears in all of the films, and eventually in the house, the deliberately paced SINISTER is given a little shove into a faster-moving horror show. Some weird cameos round out the film, including former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, playing the local sheriff in a couple of scenes, and Vincent D'Onofrio, who couldn't even be bothered to show up on set and simply pops in for one truly bizarre scene via Skype.
In the end, SINISTER works because it's about more than simply throwing humans and supernatural creatures in a house together and seeing who wins. It's about an artist potentially sacrificing those who mean the most to him for a little bit of fame and critical affirmation. I'm not sure if a sequel would be able to capture that element of the plot, but I'd be curious to see what direction this team might go in for a follow-up.