True Crime has been part of the American cultural landscape since the ‘60s. Appearing first in scandal rags like True Detective and True Crime, by the ‘80s the genre had shelf space in every major book chain in the country. Ann Rule became the most famous practitioner of this style with her exploration of the handsome serial murderer Ted Bundy’s career in The Stranger Beside Me
True crime’s popularity has roots both philosophical and sensational. The genre at once seeks to explain the darker elements of human nature and, on some primal level, simultaneously celebrates criminal homicide for our pleasure. Many of these books have been a register of America’s anxiety over changes that have come since the ‘60s (most true crime writers locate the origins of madness and mayhem in the non-traditional family).
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister makes use of some of the problematic elements of writing about murder and mayhem. Derrickson, best known to horror fans as the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has shaped what appears at first as an old-fashioned stigma house/ghost story into something much darker.
Ethan Hawke plays the role of a true crime writer who moves his family into a “murder house”, the site of a horrific massacre. He discovers a series of Super-8 films that reveal a history of violent murder and the image of a presence haunting each murder.
Sinister plays with a number of conceits immediately recognizable to genre fans, the combination of unexplained noises, real estate horror, jump cuts, and dark interiors that have been fairly sui generis since Amityville Horror. Derrickson brings to the standard mix his own fascination with endangered innocence (especially of the child-like variety) and ancient evil threatening domestic harmony in the present.
Derrickson goes further into the darkest heart of horror than he ever has before in this narrative (which he also co-wrote). Fans of Emily Rose are likely to be surprised by the almost nihilistic violence involving swimming pools, cars, lawn chairs and lawn mowers, all the instruments of family fun on the patio transformed into the instruments of mayhem.
As Derrickson himself notes in his director’s commentary, the atmosphere of the film comes from both an almost complete absence of light and a soundtrack that blends seamlessly with the score. This is perhaps more drenched in darkness than any film that you are likely to see. Derrickson notes in his director commentary that the aesthetic emerged out of a combination of Clute and Caravaggio.
There’s a lot to love about this film, though Derrickson also leaves us with some strange elisions. For example, we learn at one point that the demon Bagul, the eater of children, has a genealogy that stretches back to ancient Babylon. And yet, Hawke’s true crime writer finds no evidence of his activities dating back before 1966. This prevents Derrickson from effectively making the case for his monster in a broader context and leaves us wanting to know more about an ancient evil suddenly seeming not so ancient.
At the same time, Bagul’s a great new villain whose focus, it turns out, has something to do with the nature of the true crime genre itself. Hawke’s character has made a career out of telling lurid stories; his families’ dubious happiness rests on a foundation of telling secrets (sometimes true, sometimes not) about the darkest depths of human depravity. Bagul, we learn, is a monster that feeds off of these very aspects of the human psyche, its desire to sample the darkness. At the end of the day, Hawke becomes a victim of the very narrative of horrors that have brought him fame.
The Blu-ray edition of Sinister includes audio commentary with Scott Derrickson, in fact two tracks. In one, he describes photography and acting as a director and in a second track he’s joined by his co-writer Robert Cargill to focus on script and story. Both audio commentaries are truly amazing with a heavy emphasis on scene composition, narrative tropes and elements of making a film on a shoestring with very little CGI.
Two special features explore the meaning of “true crime” and the phenomena of “the murder house, “ the house with what real estate agents call the “stigma” of a house where a crime, especially a violent crime, has taken place. The first offers very little beyond the introduction of several true crime writers. The film itself calls the profession into question and yet no alternative visions of “true crime” are introduced in this featurette. The “murder house” short doc proved a lot of fun, even if it actually only focused on one especially infamous bit of real estate, the “Villisca Iowa Axe Murder House”.
Deleted scenes are focused around a set of scenes filmed with a next door neighbor to the unlucky Bagul-haunted household. Played by Angela Bettis (of the horror film May fame) these interconnected scenes injected some humor into the dark tale (and a bit of sunlight, making them contrast rather wildly with the palette of the rest of the film). Derrickson lifted this entire section of the narrative out of the film not because, he tells us in the audio commentary, that he didn’t like it but because it would have significantly extended a film already long by today’s horror movie standards.
Sinister imagines a monster that lives off of monstrosity, a demon that feeds off our need to watch. Derrickson notes in the audio commentary that he has made a horror film about the danger of watching horror films. Perhaps more to the point, this is a film that raises questions about our own obsession with the sinister, with true crime, with our need for monsters that might evoke monsters from the depths.