Some horror film conventions are timeless, as much as that word can be understood in the finitude of human existence. Little Red Riding Hood is possibly one of our oldest horror stories–its many current variations dating back some 2,600 years; its foundational message of anxiety about the unknown almost certainly universal.
The folly of hubris perhaps comes a close second, though the wrappings for this theme have necessarily changed over the years to fit what is most at stake for each new generation. Watching Sinister, a film about a man whose personal pride gallingly endangers his family’s welfare, I am reminded that sometimes the wrappings do not change fast enough. The result in this case is a film dealing with human anxieties old as dirt, but in ways that wobble between being chillingly antiquated, and just plain dated.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) wrote one widely acclaimed true crime novel ten years back, and two terrible ones in the interim. When he decides to move his family into the house where another family was murdered (case still unsolved; youngest daughter still missing), he does so in a last-ditch effort to reboot his fame and fortune of old. Too bad he’s messing with an ancient godhead who knows how to use a Super 8. If Ellison had known this, he might not have watched the 8mms in his new attic. If Ellison hadn’t been so dead set on writing a case-busting true crime novel, he might have done the right thing and turned in the five snuff films they contain.
If if if. It’s the stuff horror films are made of, but Sinister requires viewers to accept a tremendous number in the opening act, especially where Ellison’s family is concerned. Indeed, few horror films do a more effective job of representing family as little more than a set of owned objects that can be lost or become dangerous if not Protected and Provided For. I cannot decide if the utter dependence of this family on male exceptionalism is completely asynchronous with contemporary familial anxieties in North America*, or if the prominent use of VHS tapes and 8mm film is expressly calling upon viewers to relive familial crises more apropos to 1980, the year of The Shining. But either way, it’s very strange that in this small town, Ellison just trusts that his wife and kids won’t find out they live in the house of a high profile multiple homicide–and indeed, he gets away with this deceit far, far longer than he should. It’s equally strange that though the MacBook Pro features prominently in this film, Ellison himself is the only one seen as having any access whatsoever to technology.
And if these seem like silly details, here’s one intrinsically linked to the film’s overarching narrative arc: At one point in the film, the youngest daughter (Clare Foley) paints a picture on one side of her bed of the killer her father’s been seeing in all the snuff films. No comment about this part of the artwork ever emerges, or otherwise seems to reach Ellison’s purview. We, it seems, are meant to be just a hair’s-breadth less ignorant about the children’s lives as Ellison is until the bitter end–but since we are, what loss do we feel the film risks except the loss of Ellison’s assets, his perfectly trusting, passively reacting appendages, as opposed to the loss of distinct human beings?
This is not to say that Sinister is without disturbing scenes; they just aren’t the scenes with scampering ghost children and symbols of pagan worship. Rather, in a move that invokes a long and uncomfortable history of viewers forced to attend to their own complicity in on-screen murder (Funny Games, Man Bites Dog, The Wizard of Gore), director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) spends a great deal of screen time having us watch those old Super 8 snuff films–and these are easily the most disturbing part of this narrative as a whole. A friend who saw this film with me sagely observed that one such film-within-a-film must have been found too disturbing with test groups, because in the final cut it stops just at the moment of the first murder in that family–and that is already more than enough to get the bile flowing.
Awkwardly put together as many narrative elements may be, then, Sinister is a decent pick for festive scares this season. The ending is predictable and more than a little hokey; the opening act demands a concerted effort to suspend disbelief against the flagrant two-dimensionality of Ellison’s family; but there are elements enough in the middle to elicit audience discomfort and maybe even anxiety–over what, though, Sinister never quite explains.
*There is one way, however, in which this film does seem to be acknowledging contemporary familial issues: the housing crisis that Ellison uses as part of his excuse for buying the murder house in the first place; that keeps their old, slow-to-sell house as an easy, go-to option in case of too many scares in the new one; and that foregrounds their old, two-storey colonial as tacit indictment of the sorts of familial excesses partly blamed for the collapse of the US housing market in the first place. So in this way, definitely, Sinister gets credit for hitting North America right where it hurts: in the economy.