“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on,” begins Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and The Murderer, “knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Malcolm was writing about true crime writer Joe McGinniss, whose book Fatal Vision was a report of a family slaughtered in, some argued, a Manson-family-like cult killing. She could just as easily have been talking about Ethan Hawke‘s character in Sinister, who begins the film both stupid and full of himself, and who realizes the moral implications of his actions far too late.

Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, also a crime writer, who had a great success a decade ago. His career has floundered since, dogged, it appears, by error, booze and bad financial decisions. In a final attempt to return to his former glory, Oswalt moves his wife and two children into a house last occupied by a family that, we see at the beginning of the film, was killed there.

Rather improbably, he manages to do so without his wife (Juliet Rylance) finding out until after the boxes are unpacked. And that’s just the first thing this guy does that has you saying “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, DUDE?”

But unlike so many stories hinged on behaviors that seem impossibly reckless, this one still worked for me, and I’ll tell you why — it’s because the filmmakers had the sense to make this character a journalist, and better yet, one who’s tasted fame and lost it. I’ve known those people, and to me, the character rang totally true.

For example, if you or I found a set of Super 8 films of what appears to be elaborately staged murders of full families in a house we just moved into, we’d be dropping that shit off with the cops, right? And Oswalt allllmost did — before, and this is deftly done by Hawke, he realizes he might have a story here.

And after that realization, not nothing, not darker and darker Super 8 revelations, not warnings from a local deputy (well played by James Ransone, who strikes a welcome comedic tone that avoids the over-broad), not his son’s night terrors, not even the impossible things Oswalt sees with his own eyes are enough to get him off the story. And, having known a few journalists (some successful now, some a while ago) in my time, I bought this completely. This is how these type of people operate. This singlemindedness is what drives them to greatness, but it’s often their undoing. As it is for Oswalt.

This film has its share of problems — Oswalt’s wife existed simply to be, as Rain put it, “the wife who criticizes him,” a trope I’d be happy to see die a dreadful Super 8 shot death at any time. The middle of the film sags precariously, as it “builds up” to an ending you see from about 20 miles away (and could have come about 5 minutes earlier). There are a lot of nitpicky things you could go total Prometheus on (“how did the film get developed?” or “who has that much duct tape just lying around?” are just a few), if you are inclined to do such things.

But there is also a solid cast giving good performances (hey, what do you know, putting good actors in genre films makes them better!). And maybe you need good actors, to communicate what ends up being an interesting meditation on the nature of promise, lost (when Oswalt isn’t watching home movies of happy families being slaughtered, he’s watching interviews of himself in his heyday, wearing a Reality Bites face. Promise, lost, indeed.) and the immense power of the graven image.

But is it scary? See, that is hard for me to answer, because I don’t know you. I’ll tell you this: I went to this screening with Rain, and while I was gasping and jumping and freaking out, she could have been watching Little House on the Prairie, she was that, in her words, “unimpressed.”

It’s no big revelation that different things scare different people, and while the filmmakers pulled every Brothers Quay/Manhunter/The Ring theme, image and sound design move they could (Backwards-sounding music? Check! Creepy kids? Check! Flashlight crime scene? Check! You get the drift.), some of us are less susceptible to that stuff than others.

Rain went home and slept the sleep of the righteous, I stayed up with the lights on, afraid to open my laptop, certain images from the film playing and replaying in my head. You might fall somewhere in the middle — I think it all depends on what pushes your buttons.

This film definitely pushed mine.

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the author

Eve Batey is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist. She's been in the city since 1997, presently living in the Outer Sunset with her husband, cat, and dog. You can reach Eve at eve@sfappeal.com.

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