Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) both has trouble seeing and is increasingly troubled by what he does see. In Scott Derrickson’s latest horror film, Sinister, we continually see shots of Ellison fumbling, readjusting, and donning his black-rimmed glasses. More often, we get close-up shots of Ellison looking intently through those glasses as the reflection of sinister images rolls across the lenses, and we see him growing more disturbed by them. He’s found some film footage so evil that it’s consuming his day-to-day life, constraining his foresight in a way that ominous visions often do.
Early on, we’re treated to a shot of just how blurry Ellison’s vision is without his glasses. There’s a sense in which his insight — his wisdom — is being hampered by the image he wants to create for himself: Famous True Crime Novelist. If there’s a recurring image in the film that effectively presents the problem this creates, it’s the outside of Ellison’s office with the door closed, where he is shut away from his family in the darkness and out of their sight, pursuing a dream in such a way that puts them in danger.
Or perhaps the film’s defining image is the unnerving Super 8 footage that it opens with: a family of four hanging beneath a tree branch with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. An unseen evil cuts a balancing limb which causes the family to strangle to death in their own back yard. Oh, and it’s reported that one child survived, and is missing.
Ellison has moved his family to the victims’ house several months after their deaths, though his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and children are initially unaware of the house’s haunting significance. Hopeful that the murders will form the basis of a best-selling true crime novel, Ellison is desperate for a career revival to the point of selfish recklessness. Ellison assembles his dark office like a crime investigator’s; it’s his job to piece together the evidence for his novel, to look closer at the details of the murders, even, ironically, as attentiveness to his family blurs.
When moving boxes into the attic, he stumbles upon quite the find: a box containing a projector and several reels of Super 8 footage that are labeled like homemade memories. However, what Ellison soon discovers is that each reel is of a different family being murdered in a uniquely grisly way. It’s when he spots the faint appearance of a demonic-looking face in one of those reels that strange things begin happening to Ellison, his family, and their house. Let’s just say that “Family Hanging Out ’11” is one of the labels.
Sinister is effective horror, because Derrickson’s approach thrives on atmospherics, cut-away restraint, and a dramatic subtext that works as a complement rather than a detriment to the film’s worthy scares. He doesn’t eschew genre conventions, but he’s not cheaply reliant on them either. The house makes all of the noises one would expect, but it’s smart moves like Derrickson’s use of the sound of film reel that I won’t soon forget. It’s a nice formal touch as it audibly highlights the powerful way that images can become ingrained in us. Visually, the film has a darker shade to it that is characteristically noir — even the daytime sequences are tinted. There’s a crime-solving-mystery stylistic urgency about Sinister that feels akin to David Fincher’s work (Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). This tone feels most penetrating when accompanied by this sufficiently creepy song choice.
The horrific and this stylistic urgency come together most strikingly with the Super 8 footage, which is one of my favorite uses of “found footage” to date. There’s something unnerving about the form itself of 8mm footage. To these eyes, there’s an essential crudity inherent to the form. The murderous crimes which unfold have an elemental quality about them–they are unconcealed . . . blunt. And this makes Derrickson’s restraint all the more important and necessary as an artifice. At particular moments–just when the footage is too much to bear–he backs away, but does so in such a way that doesn’t necessarily make us more comfortable. Instead of relying on 8mm brutality, Derrickson more often focuses on how the footage is affecting Ellison: the images infecting the soul behind his eyes, the increased drinking, and the fact that he is not safe away from the screen, either. As we intake the footage with Ellison, our shared position is an unstable one, because of the haunted state of the house. This lends a spatial paranoia to the act of watching the footage that is not dependent on the images themselves.
Ellison comes to find out that, according to ancient Christian tradition, the demon he’s spotted in the footage is said to live in the images, which function as a portal between the two realms. What’s interesting is that what runs parallel to Ellison seeing the image of “Bughuul” is the sense in which he is wrapped up in pursuing a self-image he wants to attain at all costs. The parallel works, because, in both of these ways, images are profoundly powerful in the damage they can inflict. We’re told that Bughuul is a demon that “consumes” children, and it’s complemented by the sense in which images can have an especially impressive impact on the child’s psyche. And, at the same time, Ellison is pursuing a self-image in such an inordinately selfish manner that he’s eating away at the stability of his marriage, and ultimately his children. The defining self-image that Ellison is pursuing is essentially Bughuulian in its import.
Perhaps most admirable about Derrickson’s film is that he pays careful attention to evil in both the demonic and the human. There are real evil forces exterior to human agency, and also evil that has infected human beings. Neither of these are ignored, and the relationship between the two is highlighted. The idolatrous, ultimately, is that which replaces God as our ultimate self-image; because these images cannot satisfy, those around us become part of our insatiable consumption. This is the specter of sinister self-images; not only are they hauntingly dissatisfying, but their consequences–and the forces behind them–often only come into view when it is too late.