This film image released by Summit Entertainment shows, Juliet Rylance, left, Ethan Hawke, right, and Michael Hall D’Addario in a scene from
This film image released by Summit Entertainment shows, Juliet Rylance, left, Ethan Hawke, right, and Michael Hall D'Addario in a scene from "Sinister." (AP Photo/Summit Entertainment, Phil Caruso)

Forget the generic title. "Sinister" is a smart, funny and, yes, sinister little thriller.

Part of the fun of the movie is not being sure what sort of scary movie it is: A haunted house chiller? A trip inside the mind of a paranoid writer similar to Stephen King's "Secret Window, Secret Garden"? Torture-obsessed gruesomeness in the "Saw" mold?

Although it's rated R, and there is some gore, the thrills are mostly psychological in "Sinister," and hear, hear to that.

Ethan Hawke plays a possibly unhinged true-crime writer who moves his family of four into a home where the crime he's investigating was committed. Conveniently, he fails to mention to his wife that the crime was the mass hanging of a family of four.

Almost immediately, he stumbles across the sort of attic find that would send most homeowners careening to their closing agents to see if there's some failure-to-disclose clause they can invoke: a box of home movies, ironically labeled, in each of which a different family is shown being snuffed out.

Just to doll up Hawke's psychological distress, he's also dealing with a skittish local police force, a son who has night terrors, a wife who's grossed out by his creepy writing and a daughter one could easily picture starring in a "Carrie" remake a couple of years from now.

The way "Sinister" director Scott Derrickson sucks us into Hawke's warped world is slyly based on the idea that Hawke is watching movies and so are we. Audiences are apt to think Hawke shouldn't be looking at the vile snuff films, just seconds before they realize they probably shouldn't be, either. And just as Hawke should be ashamed of his drive to learn all of the gory details about the family slayings he uncovers, so, perhaps, should we.

Implicit in all of this is the suspicion that it can't be good for people to spend too much time looking at the ugliest parts of humanity paired with the "The Shining"-like irony that a dad, whose job is to protect his family, has instead dragged it into the abyss.

The good news for moviegoers is that our culpability stops well short of Hawke's beause we, at least, haven't moved our families into a house that may be perched on the brink of hell.

Derrickson's control of pace and mood is impressive for almost the full length of "Sinister." He lingers over the setup and the investigation, a smart move because those are the most satisfying elements of "Sinister." The explanation, as it often is in these movies, isn't a great one, and Derrickson seems to know that. Anyway, I'm assuming that's why he races through the final scenes -- so he can get through the middling stuff and zip to a final shock that sends us out of the theater creeped out and happy.


Directed: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance

Rated: R, for violence and brief language

Should you go? Sure, if you're up for a scary movie that knows the imagination is the scariest place of all. ***