Old Super 8 Home Movies Make the Final Cut in Sinister (2012)
For as much as horror movies are associated with scary monsters that are made possible through complex special effects, some of the most noteworthy movies are the ones that take something that is so ordinary and harmless and turn it into the source of unimaginable terror. Such is the case with the Super 8 movies that form the center of Sinister, a 2012 film that was directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson.
Sinister tells the story of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime novelist who moves his wife and kids to a small town in Pennsylvania where a family was massacred by an unknown killer. Oswalt hopes that his research into the murders will provide him with a new bestseller that will rejuvenate his stalled career. While his family moves into their new home, he finds a box of Super 8 home movies in attic that were shot of different families at different locations, from the 1960s to the present. Strange and eerie things begin to happen as Oswalt researches the films to understand their link to the murders he is investigating, things that push him and his family deeper into a mystery that isn't meant to be solved.
Sinister feels like a hodgepodge of ideas from other films that feature found footage, ghosts and slashers, but the end result of this combination is a creepy, compelling film that boasts a strong performance by Hawke and haunting direction by Derrickson. Even though seasoned horror fans will figure out the film's final twist before the characters do, Sinister is so well produced that it will keep you watching until the final twisted frame.
Even though Sinister is not a "found footage" movie like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the Super 8 home movies that Oswalt finds become an intimidating force during the course of the story, thus turning an obsolete media format into a vehicle for hallucinatory nightmares. In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Derrickson revealed that he shot the Super 8 movies before shooting the rest of the film. "I think that creating the Super 8 imagery before shooting the body of the film – along with finding the music that I found – had a lot to do with the overall impact of the whole film," said Derrickson. "Those elements set a tone in my mind that represented what the movie was going to feel like. I bought 9 music tracks ahead of time and shot the Super 8 films to those tracks. ... In some ways I think buying that music early on was the wisest move I made when making the film. I can’t imagine what the movie would be without them." In that observation, Derrickson is absolutely correct. Imagining Sinister without its Super 8 movies is like imaging Alien without the artwork contributed by H.R. Giger.
When considering the creative influences in Sinister, the most obvious would be The Shining, Ringu, and H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House" story. Yet with its depiction of the insanity that erupts when voyeurism collides with obsession, Sinister's most interesting themes are similar to those in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Derrickson's film is not nearly as bizarre as Cronenberg's, but Hawke's intense portrayal of a man falling under the hypnotic thrall of disturbing moving images is reminiscent of Videodrome's doomed protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).