Is there danger in the very act of watching a horror film? The pleasures of watching a horror film are rooted in a paradoxical and ambivalent structure: viewers are invited to take pleasure either in their own terror or in the terror of the characters on screen. For this reason some people don’t like to watch horror films at all, while others seek them out at any opportunity. Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is a genuinely unsettling and scary horror film that explores some of the implications of the genre itself and its portrayal of evil.
Sinister is rooted firmly within the confines of the horror genre and it takes advantage of some of its most well-worn tropes, including found-footage and creepy child characters. The film has no interest in transcending the limitations of the genre, instead it achieves something interesting within the accepted boundaries of the genre. Arguably a more difficult and impressive task.
The plot of Sinister has Ethan Hawke playing Ellison Oswalt, a once popular true-crime writer who moves his family into a house whose former occupants were brutally murdered, unbeknownst to his wife, in order to research the case for his next book and re-achieve literary success. Ellison soon finds a mysterious box of Super 8 film in the attic, one reel which shows the very murder he is investigating. Soon, he finds himself progressively drawn deeper and deeper into a case that begins to affect both his sanity and the well-being of his family.
The 8mm films that Ellison views are the centrepiece of the film—the first thing the audience sees at the start of the film is the first reel of a family being hung from a tree by an unseen killer—and the greatest source of terror in the film. Taking full advantage of the medium’s unique look and a nostalgia for the past (Derrickson shot the scenes on actual Super 8 stock, no digital manipulation to imitate the look), the subsequent reels Ellison views show some unknown person filming the murders of various families. As he obsesses over the films, Ellison discovers some terrifying connections between the various murders, such as the fact that each case resulted in a missing child. Even more terrifyingly he notices the presence of some malevolent force in each of the reels, first as a face at the bottom of the pool. He also finds a child’s drawing in the lid of the box of film, which identifies the demonic figure as Mr. Boogie. Slowly, Ellison becomes terrified that the presence is in his house.
The 8mm reels that Ellison watches recall the idea of the snuff film: the most horrifying example of film’s ability to testify to actual events occurring before the camera, capturing death in real-time. These films purport to show actual murders within story-world of the film. The fact that Ellison continues to view these films while not telling anyone what he’s seen, keeping them for himself, implicates him, and the audience by extension, in a grave moral transgression. Furthermore, the film takes a great deal of pleasure showcasing the 8mm apparatus, it’s beam of light and distinctive whirring noise.
Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, a comparison that the film does much to encourage through highlighting Ellison’s status as a blocked-writer and his increasing consumption of alcohol, Ellison doesn’t remove his family from danger when he uncovers the terrifying truth of the place where they are living. Instead, he believes that this will be his big break and the resulting book will launch him back to peak success. Thus, Ellison’s pursuit of success despite the increasing presence of evil and danger to his family makes him something of a Faustian figure. He is willing to strike a bargain with evil to get what he wants. To what extent does each viewer of a horror film make a similar bargain, exchanging their terror for pleasure? Eventually, what Ellison discovers is more terrifying than he could have initially imagined and he must decide whether he will abandon his work to protect his family.
Both through the images of 8mm films and its effective use of darkness and shadow, Sinister contains some great filmmaking. Its cinematography as well as its relative economy in terms of gore and jump scares sets it apart from the majority of horror films today, and particularly the found footage genre. Perhaps appropriately, considering the film’s narrative emphasis on the power of film, Sinister takes the horror genre seriously, not grafting horror elements to something else, but seeing what can be explored within the genre itself. Sinister suggests that the images of evil in horror films gives them their power as a source of terror, but also their ability to explore deeper moral truths.
8 out of 10
Sinister (USA 2012)
Directed by Scott Derrickson; written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Claire Foley.