Sinister (Rated R) 4 Stars10-31-12-sinister.gif

Director Scott Derrickson scores a run with Sinister (110 minutes), surprising for the guy who directed the crap-taculer remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. When this first came out I was convinced it was the same people behind Insidious, but nope, completely different guys. Both films have the same fatalistic feel and the same sort of unsettling soundtrack featuring jarring musical cues for the scary bits. Insidious is the superior film, but Sinister was way better than I expected it to be.

The film opens with some Super 8 footage that will figure prominently in the rest of the movie. This particular plot point is a little shifty in the digital age, but I’ll allow it since it speaks to continuity. In the home movie, a family of four are bound to a tree and killed by an unseen figure. A few months later a washed-up true-crime author and his family move into the scene of the crime. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) opts not to tell his wife and kids that people died in the backyard, which seems a little optimistic on his part. Does he think his wife is an idiot? Unless she’s a bizarre shut-in who homeschools their kids (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D’Addario), she is going to find out. Isn’t the local mass murder a popular topic of conversation in small Pennsylvania towns?

As the film goes on, their relationship just gets weirder and weirder. At one point he displeases her and she calmly tells him that if things get “spoiled” again she’s taking the kids to her sister’s. Since Tracy Oswalk (Juliet Rylance) has a British accent it seems like she’s threatening to leave him and take the kids to England. Extreme, but his reaction is pretty chill, since he’s like, yes, that’s fair. There’s clearly some backstory here that didn’t make it into the film. Sometimes that’s a nice touch, but this time it’s distracting because it muddies the emotional content of the movie. It is hard to root for characters that seem to vacillate be-tween apathy and mania. And honestly, Ellison isn’t that likable. Whether this is just bad acting or a deliberate choice by the director or actor I can’t say.

So, the exposition fairy flies over and we find out that Ellison had one really good book, which not only pissed off police across the nation, but was also the high point of a career now running steadily downhill. Again, it seems like there was mate-rial left on the cutting room floor, because in an early scene it is implied that the bestseller he wrote ended up getting a killer released, but it’s never mentioned again.

As the Oswalts move into the Murder House, Ellison heads up to the attic where he finds a box with five Super 8 film reels and a projector. He cracks open a bottle of whiskey and starts playing the films, which are innocuously titled. It turns out that each of the films is a recording of a previous murder. He immediately calls the police, who come to claim the mystery box, and the film ends happily. Just kidding, he instead sits down to watch graphic murders happen over and over again while drinking steadily. Upon closer observation, he notes that the same symbol appears in each film, as well as a mysterious figure.

He contacts a local university professor (Vincent D’Onofrio) who says the symbol is associated with the pagan worship of a deity called Bughuul. In a bi-zarre directorial choice, the “local” expert is still easier to reach via Skype. Is this to add immediacy to the film? It didn’t work, and the fuzzy digital images of the professor sort of gave me a headache. Overall, the film was filled with decent scares, particularly a scene in which Ellison walks through the Murder House with a bat, failing to see what is actually there, but hearing things nonetheless. It’s a film to watch twice, because there are things in the background to look for.

Now showing at Wynnsong 7, Carmike 12 and Carmike Market Fair 15.

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