Sinister – Redefining Horror in the Modern Era
By Kat Lawson
1. Giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen.
1.1 Evil or criminal
The past 20 years or so have seen the USA lose its dominating grip on the horror cinema market, new horror markets emerging from Japan in the 1990s and Spain in the early 2000s (see last week’s post on modern Spanish horror). With more and more foreign/non-English language studios producing better, smarter and scarier films, it seemed for a while that the USA’s only worthwhile contributions to the international horror market were very few and very far between, and for every good one there are at least 20 bad ones that should never see the light of day.
However a few films have stood out in amongst the slew of low budget Paranormal Activity-esque films, cheesy spoofs and just downright awful movies with terrible plotlines, bad acting and excessive use of blood, guts and gore that serve no purpose in developing the story – mainly because there is no story. Of this handful of films Scott Derrickson’s 2012 supernatural horror Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke, with its haunted house, Pagan deity and Super 8 mm snuff films, is definitely that stands out against the rest.
The film opens with Super 8 footage showing a family of four stood beneath a tree in their back yard, before with nooses tied around their necks, before an unseen force saws through the branch acting as a counterweight, hanging the family.
Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a troubled and washed up true crime writer, moving his family all over the country desperately trying to emulate the success of his earlier book “Kentucky Blood”. Oswalt moves his family into the house belonging to the family in the Super 8 footage at the beginning of the film, with grand hopes of solving the mystery of who killed the family and what happened to their third child who mysteriously disappeared on the same fateful night.
Whilst exploring the attic Oswalt finds a box of Super 8 films along with a projector, upon watching the films he discovers these seemingly innocent home movies are in fact snuff films, following the same pattern, the family being killed and one child going missing, the final film being the same film shown at the beginning of the movie. The mystery of how these families died and what happened to their children starts to consume Oswalt, who soon realises a demonic looking figure is present in all of these home movies and begins connects all murders and along with the help of Deputy So and So (a fan of Kentucky Blood who helps Oswalt in the hopes of mentioned in the next book and is never actually named) he figures out how the families are connected. Whilst Owalt begins to connect the dots, his children begin behaving strangely and unexplainable things start to happen around the house, before the demonic figure eventually reveals himself to Oswalt, who promptly wakes his family in the middle of the night and moves them back to their old house, deciding there will be no book. He contacts Professor Jonas, local expert in occult and demonic phenomena, Professor Jonas reveals that the demonic figure is actually that of Bagul, an ancient Pagan deity known as the “Eater of Children” whose existence requires the souls of children. At the same time Deputy So and So finds the final connection between all the families: they have all lived in that house at some time or another and therefore one of Oswalt’s children is next on Bagul’s list. Oswalt awakes after being drugged and finds himself, his wife Tracy and son Trevor bound and gagged, while daughter Ashley walks towards him with an axe and 8mm camera, promising to make her father famous again.
Whilst Sinister does sound like a typical haunted house story, it definitely delivers more than your usual run of the mill horror film. The film was generally very well received by critics, some claiming it to be the best horror film of the year (although I don’t happen to agree), although it did also receive its fair share of negative reviews, mostly for its reliance on typical horror clichés. However, despite its use of clichés, it is the film’s plot twists, incorporation of many different genres and themes as well as visible influences from many classic films such as The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) and 8mm (1999, Joel Schumacher), stop it from blending into the hoi polloi of modern American horror cinema.
Ellison Oswalt is perhaps the only really developed character throughout the whole film, his character and back story is quite well thought out, more than just a clichéd struggling writer trying to figure out his next big break. He is haunted in so many ways, not only by Bagul, but by the thought that his book “Kentucky Blood” may have been his 15 minutes of fame, that he may never have that fame again. Haunted by his failures with regards to another previous book, wherein his research resulted in a killer going free and a further three murders taking place, hence his frosty reception from the local sheriff when they move into their new house. And then finally he is haunted by Bagul and the missing children in the demon’s quest for Ashley’s soul.
The source of horror for the audience throughout the film is the character of Bagul, referred to by the children as Mr Boogie, he described by Professor Jonas as being a Pagan deity known as the “Eater of Children”. Bagul, targets these families, taking the children as he needs their souls in order to sustain his existence, Professor Jonas provides examples of him depicted in art throughout history, identifies the symbol painted on the walls of the family’s homes as being the symbol of Bagul (similar to a pentagram). From wider reading it seems that Bagul never existed as any part of the pagan faith, he is created purely for the purposes of this film, drawing on characteristics of other demons such as Lilith, Lamashtu or Ala. Unusually he is characterised as male, whereas most demons in theology or mythology who steal children or torment mothers throughout pregnancy such as the ones listed above are characterised as female.
Rather than use the tired out old explanations for demonic activity such as build on an old Indian burial ground or blood sacrifices and rituals were conducted in the basement or the previous owners practiced necromancy, Sinister creates a new demon, with a back story, evidence of his presence throughout the ages. This kind of creativity is what is lacking in a lot of modern horror films, it is what makes films like Sinister stand out, instead of recycling the same stories and the same formats over and over again. It also shows how a film can stick to horror clichés and at times be a bit predictable with its overall story arc, but with the right character developments and the right plot twists can still deliver the same frights and same impact as completely original stories.
Don’t worry, daddy. I’ll make you famous again.