Late last year, Forbes published an article that attempted to assess the scariest movies ever made on the basis of resting and elevated heart rates. Out of all the major horror films released over the last forty years, Sinister came in first, beating classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist, along with more recent releases like Insidious and Paranormal Activity. While it’s not quite the scariest film I’ve ever seen, it’s certainly up there, since Scott Derrickson embeds his horror in the fabric of the film itself in a remarkably eerie and unsettling way. The plot revolves around Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer played by Ethan Hawke, who has made a living by moving his family from town to town, and investigating local cases. Despite making headlines with titles like Kentucky Blood and Cold Denver Morning, Ellison has reached a slump in his career, so he takes his newest investigation one step further, not just moving into the city, but into the very house where a crime was committed.
The crime in question is the murder of a family, who were hung from a tree in the backyard, and the disappearance of their youngest daughter, who remains unaccounted for. It’s not entirely clear what Ellison plans to do in this house, however, except simply commune with its ambience, since he doesn’t have a good history of collaborating with local law enforcement. He’s already known to the local sheriff, played by Fred Thompson, who is hostile from the outset, although his Deputy, simply known as Deputy So & So, played by James Ransome, is a true crime nut, and asks for Ellison’s autograph the moment they meet. Even then, however, Deputy So & So has to actively insert himself into the investigation before Ellison is prepared to rely on his services, while Ellison doesn’t even keep his family in the loop, failing to tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) that they’re now living in a crime scene.
Without any clear investigative inroad to the outside world, Derrickson does most of his research on his laptop – and from the very outset, Sinister feels like a film about digital horror, both in terms of its visual design and its sound design. Visually, Derrickson tends to brighten up the foreground to an almost glary degree, forcing you to scan intense patches of darkness, or blankness, in the background. Since it’s all shot on a digital camera, these dark spots don’t retain their graininess, as might occur on celluloid, but instead morph and flicker in response to even the slightest movements in the glary foreground. Sonically, Derrickson suffuses the film with a heightened hush that has become typical of digital horror in recent years, evoking a presence, or an entity, that resonates somewhere just beneath the threshold of audibility.
This uncanny visual and sonic palette crystallises around Ellison’s central discovery – a Super 8 projector, and a collection of Super 8 films, in a box in the attic. The sharp distinctions between light and darkness are further intensified by the way that Derrickson shoots this projector, since he repeatedly films the unbearable brightness of the lens full on, so that our eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the next shot, which always seems murky and clouded by comparison. Similarly, these Super 8 films intensify the uncanny silence, since the original Super 8 format was a silent medium. As he watches the films, Ellison is drawn into their unnerving silence, which also percolates out into his study, and then to the rest of his house.
However, the main reason why these silent films are so unnerving is that they depict acts so horrific that they demand a sonic accompaniment – or force you to provide one in your own head. All of the films are about three minutes in length, and all of them record the murders of families. Taken together, they comprise five of the scariest scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film, partly because they seem closer in spirit to snuff than to mere records of murder. All of them are clearly made for the unseen killer’s pleasure, rather than as a mere document of his or her crimes, and all of them are shot so as to shock the viewer in the worst possible way. The closest analogy I can think of are the snuff films in Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, which were also Super 8 films, as if the analog gothic of Super 8 film could only resonate fully through snuff, or the terrifying existence of snuff required Super 8 gothic to articulate its depravities.
The first of these videos corresponds to the crime that Ellison is investigating and depicts the family of four as they are being hung from the tree just outside his living room window. This is one of the eeriest sequences I have ever seen in a horror film, initially focusing our attention on the family, paper bags on their heads and nooses around their necks, as they stand on the ground attached to the tree. From there, however, our attention shifts to a glitch in the footage higher up in the image. At first, this looks like a cut or tear in the Super 8 cartridge, but gradually it resolves into some kind of cutting implement, although it’s unclear who or what is controlling it. Finally, this implement lops off one of the upper branches of the tree, shifting the whole balance of the trunk, which leans to one side, and elevates the family off the ground, hanging them in the process. Even creepier than that image, however, is the way this initial cut in the film turns into the cutting implement itself. In that transition, Derrickson evokes a horror, or an entity, that is totally synonymous with the Super 8 medium as a whole.
No surprise, then, that the remaining four films are largely defined by their cuts. In each film, we start with images of a family in situ, clearly shot by a stranger at some distance, before abruptly cutting to the fate of that family, which always seems opaque at first, but then quickly resolves into an unbearable horror tableau. These cuts seem to correspond to the elevated heart rates that the Forbes article recorded, while they’re also the main line of forensic enquiry for Ellison, who spends most of the film scrutinising and rearranging this footage, as well as converting it from a Super 8 format to a digital format. In that sense, Sinister reflects a time when the broader population were becoming au fait with Mac editing suites, and the minutiae of augmenting images on a Mac, along with the move towards mass image manipulation generally, through the rise of visual social media sites such as Instagram.
As a result, virtually all of Sinister takes place in front of screens. When Ellison isn’t perusing the Super 8 footage, he’s either watching old videos of his television appearances, or staying up all night to engage in online sleuthing. Like David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was released a year earlier, Sinister is a desktop procedural, reflecting dramatic changes in how true crime is researched and investigated. Despite his disdain for police officers, Ellison’s earlier books seemed to involve some degree of field work, but here we see him transitioning into a digital researcher, combing the web for the most arcane pockets of information. Watching him, I was reminded of Michelle McNamara’s rise to true crime royalty, and the habits that led to her eventual discovery of the Golden State Killer – staying up all night, examining endless message boards, and never quite leaving her laptop.
In quite a dramatic move, then, Ellison, and the film, never leave this single property – at least not until the abbreviated third act. In fact, Ellison barely leaves his room, which is sequestered in the middle of the house, devoid of any windows, and mainly lit by the Super 8 footage and his laptop screen. While Sinister does have the peripatetic momentum of a crime procedural, it’s all transplanted to the digital sphere, as Ellison recruits Deputy So & So to do all his field work, which is pretty considerable, since the Super 8 films record crimes from different cities. Even when Ellison consults an occult expert, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, he does it via Skype, rather than leaving his home, building a mounting sense of entrapment as the film proceeds.
Yet this entrapment doesn’t quite corresponds to the claustrophobia of an earlier kind of horror film. Instead, the horror here stems from a pervasive sense of porosity, as the digital world and the analog world start to enmesh and intertwine. In analog horror, traditional claustrophobia often goes hand in hand with night scenes, but the few sequences here that are discernibly or definitively nocturnal tend to be the most generic. Instead, Derrickson situates the best horror in times and spaces that are neither quite day or night, reflecting the mindset of the digital true crime addict, whose main source of light is the laptop screen, and whose habits don’t reflect a normal diurnal body clock. While there are scenes that are not night here, daylight never fully arrives either, since this is the kind of house that always has dark spots, during the day, making it very difficult to tell whether it’s day or night in many of the key scenes, especially since Ellison’s study has no windows and no sources of natural light.
At the same time, this is a new house, so there are no furnishings, or even any lived-in texture, to help differentiate between day and night. Watching it, I realised how much domestic fixtures are geared towards day spaces and night spaces, or day activites and night activites, particularly since Ellison’s family don’t seem to have a very clear distinction between day and night to begin with, often staying up way past regular bedtime hours, or engaging in odd activities when you’d expect them to be asleep. Ellison’s son Trevor, played by Michael Hall D’Addario, is a chronic sleepwalker, and wakes up in the weirdest places, while his daughter Ashley, played by Clare Foley, loves to paint on walls, which often preoccupies her long past bedtime. With no clear diurnal fixtures in place, Ellison’s house recalls the impoverished, underfurnished spaces of the Paranormal Activity franchise, while also anticipating the remake of Pet Sematary, and its more contemporary take on Stephen King’s writer’s block.
Without any clear distinction between day and night, the film’s balance between light and dark is largely determined by the laptop and Super 8 projector, which gradually become more autonomous as Ellison’s investigation proceeds. At first, they turn on independently, then they appear to guide him towards different avenues of enquiry, and finally they spawn a series of ghost children, who emerge from their screens and wander around the house when Ellison’s family sleeps. There’s a real fear here, then, that digital media, which is already quite discorrelated from human perception, might become totally sentient, while also remediating older cinematic media to render them totally sentient as well. More and more, the horror occurs at the cusp between digital media and the real world – at the moments when Ellison approaches his laptop, or leaves his laptop, or converts Super 8 to digital footage. This confounds diegetic and non-diegetic space, blurring the world inside the Super 8 footage, and the world on Ellison’s laptop, and the world outside it, until the horror of Sinister seems to be baked directly into the fabric of the film, meaning that the film can never confront it directly.
This poses a real challenge to Derrickson, and to the film – how do you create an entity, or an antagonist, capable of personifying a form of horror that is synonymous with the fabric of the film itself? Derrickson’s solution is quite brilliant, and starts with a flickery figure that Ellison starts to discern as he peruses the Super 8 films. For the most part this figure appears for only one or two seconds, forcing Ellison to bring his best editing skills to bear on isolating him in a single frame. This figure also appears in the real world, or at the cusp between the real world and the digital world, where he’s often accompanied by an uncanny digitised fog that appears to be both occurring within the scene and overlaid on top of the scene, not unlike the odd mists that are used to blur diegetic boundaries during Twin Peaks: The Return. Like these fogs, this figure doesn’t quite exist in the Super 8 footage, or in the digital footage, or in the real world, instead emerging at the juncture between these three spaces and Ellison’s experience.
After consulting with the occult expert, Ellison realises that this figure is most likely to be Bughuul, a Babylonian deity who depended on the ritual sacrifice and cannibal consumption of children for his sustenance. The most striking trait of Bughuul, however, was that he operated in and through images, not only taking possession of children through images but actually abducting them into images. For that reason, early Christians destroyed frescoes, paintings and drawings of Bughuul whenever they could, meaning that he hasn’t appeared regularly during the last two millennia. Yet Ellison quickly recognises that Bughuul was always proto-digital, biding his time until the digital revolution would provide him with an unprecedented proliferation of images to operate through. Rather than organising the film’s images in the manner of a conventional horror antagonist, Bughuul is radically identified with those images, until the film itself feels like a possession, infection, or abduction – a manifestation of Bughuul that is designed to act upon the viewer as it does on Ellison’s family.
While I’ve seen films that are equally scary, I can’t think of a scarier premise for a horror film than an entity that abducts people through images, since this is the fundamental premise of all horror cinema – to abduct the audience for a couple of hours into images of horror. In that sense, the final sequence plays like a condensed version of the audience’s experience of watching the film, as Ellison finally flees the crime house, and returns to his family home, only to learn that all the people in the videos did the same thing, and were only abducted by Bughuul once they’d set up in a new place. While Bughuul operates through images, then, he only seems able to act through those images once the people who view those images move to a new location, in the same way that the full horror of Sinister only ramifies once you have left the cinema, turned off the television, or closed the laptop, and tried to move into another space to achieve some closure. Only then, as in the film, do Bughuul’s images become truly viral, since they now have a host to remove and remediate them from their point of origin. Paradoxically, the safest thing to do is to stay with these images, and watch the film endlessly, rather than to allow the film to come to an end, and then transplant them to another space.
In that sense, Sinister never permits its audiences to finish the film. While the ending is magisterial in its imagery – Ellison’s daughter kills him and his family, before Bughuul abducts her into the Super 8 footage – it defies any clear distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic space to the last, poising us right on the cusp between the film and our world. Digital images here are no longer “images” in the self-contained sense of analog cinema, but medial thresholds that make it impossible to extract ourselves from the forces acting upon the characters in the film. To watch Sinister, then, is to be haunted, abducted and operated upon by digital technology at its most alterior. For all that Forbes rated its isolated moments of terror, and the elevated heart rates that accompany them, it’s the lingering after-effects of Sinister that make it so terrifying – the way it turns every digital image and interface into a portal for the terror that Ellison unleashes as soon as he tries to turn away from those images, which is also what we try to do as an audience, only for the film to hit hardest at that moment.