Horror movies are as popular as ever, which is both a blessing and a curse for lovers of the genre — while studios are releasing them at a steady rate, most of them are either sub-par remakes or garish gore-fests that don’t realize that less is always more. Scott Derrickson’s genuinely creepy Sinister transcends many of the clichéd genre tropes that have sprouted up in recent years.
Written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, Sinister centers on Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime author whose last big success, Kentucky Blood, was published 10 years ago. Desperate to regain past glory, Oswald moves his wife (Juliet Rylance) and two children into a Pennsylvania home where a family was murdered in an effort to write his next book about the victims’ unsolved demise.
“This could be my National Book Award, my In Cold Blood!” Oswald tells his wife, who is dubious about the endeavor even before she learns the home’s true nature. And, inevitably, things get complicated when Oswald discovers a box in the attic that contains mysterious 8-mm films related to various, possibly connected, murders, including the one that occurred in the very house his family now resides.
Derrickson tells his goth-tinged psychological thriller with uncommon restraint, bathing the proceedings in darkness (revered Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis is a clear inspiration), creating tension by downplaying graphic violence and ratcheting up the suspense. Not every increasingly supernatural narrative turn works, but a hardworking Hawke brings authenticity to a role that would typically go to less accomplished actor in a genre movie that was made for a mere $3 million (it brought in $47 million).
The Blu-ray edition’s special features include two brief documentaries (one about “True Crime Authors,” one about “Living in a House of Death”), neither of which is all that useful. There are also two audio commentary tracks, including one with Derrickson and Cargill that finds the engaging duo paying homage to all the right genre influences. Grade: B