Writer-director Scott Derrickson and his collaborators on Sinister clearly graduated summa cum laude from the Jump-Scare School of Hollywood Horror, because this is a movie that, if nothing else, could probably give even a healthly person a heart attack.  Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a debt-burdened true crime writer who, hoping to do some salacious research for a tacky comeback book, and without warning his family about their new home’s sordid history, has moved them into a creepy house where the last occupants were ritualistically murdered.  Oswalt’s life turns scary fast when he discovers a box of old snuff footage in the attic.

The murders documented in the home movies appear to be unrelated until Oswalt discovers that each reel contains a fleeting glimpse of a mysterious, pale-faced Insane Clown Posse reject – who, an expert professor informs him, is Bughuul, an ancient Babylonian deity and devourer of children’s souls who lives in his images and paraphernalia.  Before long the move into the new house has the children behaving bizarrely, with the boy popping shirtless out of a cardboard box like a little Anthony Kiedis and screaming, for instance, and the daughter hanging around with a troupe of ghostly junior juggaloes.

The house, which functions to satisfy Oswalt’s selfishness, is his unsavory headspace given architectural form, enveloping and victimizing his family, with all their demonic troubles directly traceable to his poor decisions, materialistic irreligion, and careless self-absorption.  In line with God’s commandment against graven images, Sinister acts (barely) subtextually as a morality tale and a warning to parents to consider their children’s cultural diet as carefully as the food they eat.  In other words, let them read too many comic books, listen to death metal and hip-hop, watch boob-jiggling music videos – or, in short, take them to see one too many gruesome horror movies like Sinister, and you might have a burgeoning brood of Beelzebub-worshipping serial killers on your hands.  Sinister, then, is that rare bat: the self-loathing horror film.

A strong Ethan Hawke performance anchors and energizes Sinister, which, if not for his convincing presence in the lead, would be a significantly less effective film.  The script is adequate; but, with the exception of Ellison Oswalt, offers few if any other fully developed characters.  Oswalt’s wife, played by Juliet Rylance, is less a human being than a personification of her moral position, and the children have no purpose apart from glaring, looking sickly, and trying their best to seem to be spooky instead of just cute kids.  The precocious Michael Hall D’Addario, who was so charming in People Like Us earlier this year, is particularly underutilized here.  Not a bad show overall, though, and commendable for helping to raise public awareness about the epidemic menace posed by Pennsylvania attic scorpions, Sinister gets 3.5 of 5 stars for Hawke and the jumps.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Sinister is:

4. Anti-drug.  Oswalt turns to whiskey, which can’t solve his problems.  The drink for edifying discussion is coffee – which, however, also proves ultimately deceptive.

3. Pro-police – or, in this case, the sheriff and his deputies.  The sheriff at first appears to play an antagonistic role when the Oswalts move into his town; but his unwelcoming demeanor and suggestion that they leave turns out to have been a piece of wisdom that could have prevented trouble.  The ostensibly naive “Deputy So-and-So” proves to be smarter and more adept than he at first appears.  He’s a neighborly, God-fearing man, though perhaps a little corny, and brings a reassuring light and warmth to his few scenes.

2. Christian/traditionalist.  Oswalt’s lack of faith has endangered his family.  Paganism, far from being something harmlessly trendy, contains demonic currents that put children at risk.  Oswalt’s condescending citified attitude toward what he expects will be the stereotypically ignorant and belligerent old rural sheriff and Fife-like deputy is ill-advised, and his sophisticated certainty and atheism are shaken and refuted by what he experiences.

1. Pro-family.  What families really require, Sinister argues, is responsible fathers more concerned with their children’s welfare than with satisfying their own selfish whims.