Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner...
SINISTER starts off with an extremely disturbing image guaranteed to haunt the rest of the film--and then proceeds to live up to that guarantee throughout its running time.
Ethan Hawke is "true crime" writer Ellison Oswalt, once a sensation, now a pariah (especially where the police are concerned). He believes that he's got the ultimate "comeback" book in him and thinks nothing of moving his family (wife and two young children) directly into the very house at which his latest pet atrocity took place... and what could possibly be gained by telling them about it?
Ellison is quite prepared to do extensive research, but somebody seems to want to make it easy for him--a box of Super-8 films (complete with projector) is ready and waiting in the attic; and the films themselves offer all the grisly details to not only the crime he's investigating (an entire family slaughtered save for one missing little girl) but an entire series of such unsolved and unresolved incidents. And in case I still need to spell it out at this point, the involvement of children in this scenario will make this a "taboo" film for many of my readers (including my own wife--in fact, my daughter even called to WARN me not to take her).
Frankly, the trailer gives away too much, but that doesn't stop the film from working.
One can certainly draw a parallel between this story and that of THE SHINING, and the case is certainly made that Ellison's own obsessions (including his fear of failure) are making him into a nervous wreck. That MIGHT also explain the night terrors and other episodes of bizarre behavior experienced by his children. And the family is essentially cut off from civilization (we hear about but never actually see the childrens' new school or the suspicious, staring townspeople). But while the similarity exists, THE SHINING doesn't quite sum up SINISTER, it will suffice to say.
The only relief from the stifling nature of SINISTER comes in the form of James Ransome as "Deputy So-and-So." While the local sheriff wants nothing more than for the Oswalts to get as far away from town as possible, the deputy catches a whiff of celebrity and decides to ingratiate himself to the author: Ransome avoids the "dumb hick" stereotype and scores as a much-needed breath of fresh (and yes, occasionally humorous) air.
SINISTER's sole miscue (in my opinion) involves only a single shot--one that violates the first-person experience of the film to show you something Hawke couldn't possibly have seen for himself. Yet even that bit is sure to make the audience jump and gasp, so perhaps I should simply concede the point.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson had previously impressed me with THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (sorry, not even I bothered with his remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), but that wasn't the interesting coincidence of the day. This being Halloween season, I've been revisiting perennials I haven't looked at for many years, including the HELLRAISER series. As it happened, the direct-to-video HELLRAISER: INFERNO (2000) was next on my list that very evening, and it just happened to be Derrickson's feature writing/directing debut. The compromised INFERNO (not written as a HELLRAISER film but retrofitted to include Pinhead like the other video sequels) was easily the best of that peculiar breed and clearly points the way to SINISTER, for that matter.
Derrickson continues to improve his craft with each of his pure horror outings, and I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading what he comes up with next.
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