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Had I been watching it at home, alone, on a dark and stormy night, my neck likely would be sore by the end of it, from making repeated glances behind the couch — you know, just to be safe. It’s this year’s Insidious: well-built, respectful of audience members’ intelligence and yet genuinely freaky.

Ethan Hawke (Daybreakers) plays Ellison Oswalt, a writer of true-crime books who’s uprooted his wife and kids to another town for research purposes. Unbeknownst to all but him, their new home is the site of a still-unsolved, bizarre mass murder, in which four family members were hanged on the backyard tree.

Upon moving in, Ellison finds a box in the attic containing several Super 8 film canisters and a projector. The reels’ flickering images depict the brutal event that occurred mere steps away, and others. Having peaked a decade prior, the author — like a shark to blood in the water — smells a big best seller in the making.

As demonstrated by Sinister’s chilling opening, these “home movies” are absolutely unsettling. The stock’s scratches and grain suggest a snuff film, and the discordant, looping scores — unique for each reel — employed by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) bear a real power to disturb. The less you know about them, the better; I’d even advise against watching the trailer.

Hawke’s commitment secures your buy-in. As usual, he’s solid and reliable. To his credit, he invests equal effort into his performance as he did in his Oscar-nominated role in Training Day.

Consciously or not, Derrickson makes a shrewd statement on its own film genre. Knowing that each successive Super 8 reel will bring further pain and suffering, Ellison still threads ’em up. He just has to; he can’t not know what’s there — in other words, just like moviegoers who willingly pay admission to be frightened.

Sure enough, the two teen girls behind me proved that theory. As Sinister edged toward the precipice, ready to pull audiences over into its climax, one of them begged her friend, “Let’s just go!” The reply was, “I know, I want to, but I can’t!”

That Derrickson spells out the ending too much is to be expected for a mainstream movie, but damned if its final boo didn’t make those girls scream all the same. —Rod Lott

Hey! Read This:
Daybreakers Blu-ray review  
Insidious film review   

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