Forgive the digression, but the real horror of The Shining isn’t bloody axes, creepy twins or writer’s block—it’s the fear of not being able to provide for one’s family. (Even director Stanley Kubrick felt that a little, after the costly flop of his preceding film, Barry Lyndon.) The new thriller Sinister, rooted in economic anxiety, gets at this idea with delicious tartness. Scruffy true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) sees his success far in the rearview mirror, as his brood endures a string of frantic relocations to murder sites in pursuit of another best-seller. This time, unbeknownst to them, Ellison has moved the gang into the very house where the ex-occupants were hanged from a tree in the backyard. Hawke plays his character’s wormy desperation like a champ—and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a forgotten box of Super-8 home movies waiting for him in the attic, rusty reels with titles like “Family Barbecue” and “Pool Party.” Gulp.
Director Scott Derrickson toggles between two modes, which work smartly off each other: With every clattery projection of another homemade snuff film (the next worse than the last), we also get scenes of Ellison drinking himself into oblivion as he watches old Tavis Smiley interviews from his glory days. Clearly, the author’s got material for a rebound, but will his ego survive long enough to write it? Sinister has so much going for it—adult psychology, a great bitchfest of a marital meltdown—that you wince when it finally makes some rather dull choices involving the supernatural. We already know who the caretaker of this private Overlook Hotel is, and for a while, his personal demons make for a fine diversion.
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