Sinister: It Really Will Creep You Out

Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Sinsiter really did creep me out, bless its scabby little head. “Sinister” is a deft assemblage of genre ready-mades — haunted house, slasher, found footage — bound together in an atmosphere of bleak portents that sometimes recalls “The Shining,” among other, admittedly better, films. What sets it apart from less enterprising fright flicks is its disturbing imagery. Some of this can be glimpsed in the trailer: the eerie sight of four bound and hooded figures hanging limply from an improvised backyard gallows; the squirming terror of another group of people, tied down on poolside recliners, as they’re pulled by ropes into the water to drown. I won’t go into the gardening horror (yikes!), but you get the idea; this stuff stays with you.

Seeing as any movie of this sort is by definition implausible, it helps to have a star who can anchor the awful proceedings in an appealing, down-to-earth style. Ethan Hawke — the beleaguered idealist of “Training Day,” the personable swain of “Before Sunset” and “Before Sunrise” — is just the man for the job. Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer whose one best-seller is 10 years behind him. Desperate for another hit, Oswalt has found a promising new case to write about — the unsolved lynching of an innocuous family in small-town Pennsylvania. (An added attraction: One of the dead family’s children, little Stephanie, never has been found.) Oswalt’s wife (Juliet Rylance) and their two kids (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario) aren’t thrilled about being relocated to the woodsy environs of this crime. But imagine how they’d feel if Oswalt revealed that he has actually moved them in to the very house where the murders were committed.

Settling into this new home, Oswalt discovers something strange in the attic — a box of old super 8 films and a little projector on which to run them. Threading in one film, he sees a happy family — mom, dad, three children — doing happy things in their backyard. Then there’s a cut — to the four bodies hanging from a tree. “Who made this film?” Oswalt wonders. And, “Where’s Stephanie?”

The other films in the box are similarly unnerving. Each was made in a different town, over the course of some 40 years. Each records the grisly demise of another family, and each canister is labeled with a sick-jokey title. (The film called “Sleepy Time” depicts a late-night domestic attack suggesting that director and co-writer Scott Derrickson has watched Michael Mann‘s 1986 “Manhunter” on more than one occasion.)

The local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is aggressively displeased that Oswalt has come to town to make his cops look bad. But one of the sheriff’s deputies turns out to be a true-crime buff, and he agrees to help Oswalt track down all the murders depicted in the films, which Oswalt has transferred to his computer for freeze-frame viewing. (Who’s that masked figure in the bushes?) Things grow ever-eerier, along with Christopher Young’s unsettling electro-murk score. At one point, Vincent D’Onofrio puts in an uncredited appearance as a sort of professor of strange things to relay information about the cult of an ancient child-eating deity. All right!

Unfortunately, this turn toward the otherworldly is muddled by suggestions that Oswalt — who has taken to drinking heavily — might be cracking up and, like Stanley Kubrick‘s Jack Torrance, simply imagining all the weird noises and spectral manifestations by which he thinks he’s beset. (Maybe it would help if he turned the lights on during his late-night house-prowls.) But as the number of things that don’t add up increases, the horror remains, and the jolts keep coming, right up to the ghastly conclusion — which is killer, by the way.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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