A writer researching the disappearance of a young girl after the grisly murder of her family discovers a cache of terrifying home movies and unwittingly opens a door into a nightmarish mystery in Sinister, the latest horror thriller from the producer of the Paranormal Activity films and the writer-director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. A sensation at SXSW’s Super Secret Midnight Screening, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Daybreakers) in an intense, harrowing and shockingly original tale.
Ten years ago, true crime writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) made his reputation with a best-selling account of a notorious murder. Now, desperate to replicate the critical and financial success of his first book, he moves his loyal wife (Juliet Rylance), over-anxious son (Mark Hall D’Addario) and artistic daughter (Clare Foley) into a home where a suburban family was brutally executed and a child disappeared, hoping to find inspiration in the crime scene.
Instead he discovers a mysterious box containing Super 8 footage of the murders—plus several more equally gruesome homicides. As he watches the carnage unfold on film, Ellison realizes he has stumbled onto evidence of a decades-long killing spree. But rather than going to the local authorities, he keeps the movies to himself, hoping to publish another acclaimed book based on the crimes.
As Ellison starts to piece together the mind-bending truth about the crimes and the murderer, unseen intruders and inexplicable goings-on disrupt his once peaceful household. Slowly, he begins to realize that his ambition has placed him and his family in the path of an ancient and bloodthirsty adversary who has marked them as his next victims.
Chilling and suspence driven ride
When the riveting opening scene of Sinister unspools on the screen, audiences will have no doubt that they are at the beginning of a chilling and suspense- driven ride. A family of four stands beneath a tree in a suburban backyard, hoods hiding their faces and nooses around their necks. As an unseen figure saws away a branch, the bound family members are hoisted into the air in slow motion, kicking and struggling for air until they finally all dangle silently. Shot on grainy Super 8 film, the sequence is at once completely ordinary and entirely horrific, as a commonplace setting becomes a killing ground. Fittingly, that opening image, which was the inspiration for the script that became Sinister, first came to co- writer C. Robert Cargill in a nightmare.
Cargill, best known as blogger massawyrm of the pop culture web site, Ain’t It Cool News, dreamed he found a box of Super 8 films in his attic. Watching the films, he was horrified to witness the murder that became Sinister’s opening image. He was unable to shake his revulsion and fear even after awakening.
“The image just wouldn’t let go,” he says. “I remember vividly hearing the sound of the Super 8 projector and then seeing the tree with four people lined up beneath it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Eventually, I realized it would be the basis for a really good movie. I kicked the idea around for a couple of years until it all finally came together.”
A film critic for more than ten years, Cargill has seen his share of horror films, from acclaimed classics to little- known sleepers. One of his core beliefs about the genre is that it is essential to establish the menace from the beginning. “This is something nobody’s ever done before,” he says. “It will scare the crap out of people. It comes from nowhere and you will have no idea what’s coming next, but you will know that this is not going to end well. At the very first test screening, that shot came up and people in the audience gasped. And I thought, good, it worked.”
After Cargill worked out the details of his story, he contacted his friend Scott Derrickson, director and writer of the horror hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose. “Scott was a fan of my writing on Ain’t It Cool News,” he explains. “We became friends after he wrote to me to thank me for turning him on to films that he might have missed. We both happened to be in Las Vegas and, after a couple of drinks, I pitched the idea to him.”
Derrickson, a longtime aficionado of the genre, says Cargill may be the only person he knows who has seen more horror films than he has. “I have a lot of respect for his opinion of movies,” the director says. “He pitched me the story of Sinister, beginning, middle and end, in about three or four minutes. And I said, ‘write it down in a page, quick.’ We registered it with the Writer’s Guild and a week later we were in producer Jason Blum’s office pitching it to him.”
Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, producer of the highly successful Paranormal Activity trilogy, recognized the potential in Cargill and Derrickson’s story and put them to work on a full script immediately. The company’s prolific output is driven by a philosophy that puts ideas in the forefront. “We look for high- concept movies that can be done inexpensively,” he says. “More often than not those are horror movies, but they don’t have to be. Sinister fit our needs because it has that high concept and it is physically contained, which is very specifically what the company’s looking for.
“Scott and Cargill walked me through the movie, and six months after that we were shooting it,” he continues. “In scary movies, I always like to see a great dramatic story with scares that underpin the horror factor. They had a great story about how a man’s ambition affects his family life folded into a solid horror movie. It’s seriously scary without being super bloody.”
Blum already admired Derrickson’s work, especially The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It was that, coupled with Derrickson’s clear vision for the movie that made the producer want to work with him. “He had complete creative control. He’s really one of the stronger directors out there and he really loves scary movies. I know that good ones are very hard to make and he’s one of the few people who’s really able to pull them off.”
Blumhouse’s reputation for respecting directors and writers made the company Cargill and Derrickson’s first choice. “Jason is the only producer I’ve met in Hollywood who fully grasps the idea that creative people should be creating and that business people should be tending to business,” says Derrickson. “He allows committed artists to do what they do well, and he prospers from that if the movie is good. Writers write the scripts, directors direct. I had final cut on the movie for the first time in my career.
“And so far his track record is stunning, because he picks talented people who understand the genre that they’re working in. It’s so much fun for everybody involved because it’s nothing but positive energy all the time.”
As Cargill and Derrickson began writing their first script together, they developed an unusual and efficient method of collaborating. “It seems weird that we’re in different cities and writing together,” says Cargill. “But many writing partnerships don’t happen in the same room anyway. Scott’s a day guy, a nine- to- fiver. I’m a coffee- swilling night owl. He’s getting off work when I’m getting up, so he passed off his stuff to me and then I worked through the night. When he woke up, my stuff was waiting.”
With a 24-hour workday between them, they were able to complete the script in only five weeks, working from an outline that Derrickson drafted. “It included all the fundamental scenes,” he says. “And then we just divvied it up and wrote different pieces at different times and rewrote everything that the other person wrote. It was such a fast, fluid process of writing and rewriting that now it’s hard to remember who wrote what.”
Both writers adhered to the idea that characters and story came first, and the film’s terrifying scares grew out of that. “So many horror directors don’t take the dramatic aspects of their story as seriously as the horror aspects,” says Derrickson. “They are committed to trying to make their movie scary and shocking, but not as committed to making the dramatic moments truthful and real. We believe that if your characters are realistic and your audience feels for them, everything else is going to be scarier.”
Cargill adds: “One of the things that scares people the most is the idea that something is wrong within the family. We all want to believe that love exists and that a single mistake by a family member isn’t the end of everything. Here we have a father who’s deliberately exposing his family to danger. The main character ends up endangering himself and his family, and ultimately the family will pay the price for that.”
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario
Screenwplay by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent images and some terror,
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Release Date: October 11, 2012