SINISTER: STORY ANALYSIS


Horror has pretty much always been my favourite genre. Like a lot of people of my generation, I saw a lot of movies years before I was supposed to (don’t ask how). Yeah, action movies were fun, sci-fi was a blast – but it was horror that really struck a nerve with me. I love being part of an audience and experiencing someone else’s vision of terror. But quite early on I realised that I not only wanted to watch horror films, I wanted to write horror films too. It’s a desire that is shared by many genre fans I think. I learned quite early on that knowing the genre you are writing within is vitally important. And so is knowing what works and what doesn’t. The best way to do this is to analyse and deconstruct films and stories that you like. So this marks the first in a new series of analysing successful genre films from a writing and story perspective. I will begin with a look at Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012).

This obviously includes spoilers!!!

Sinister was a movie that took a lot of people by surprise in 2012. Our film writer watched the UK premiere at Frightfest that year and I think it shocked a few people with just how dark it was. When I finally got around to watching it at the cinema six months or so after this, I remember being slightly underwhelmed. However, in retrospect, I think the hype had something to do with this. The trailer had made it look super scary and the early reviews were all very positive. I have watched the film several times since then and it’s fair to say I appreciate it and enjoy it more every time. That’s not to say it’s a perfect film (no film is) but on the whole, Sinister can only be considered a success. It’s a dark, moody and deeply unnerving movie that made an awful lot of money at the box office. Over $85m in fact.

Not bad for a film that reportedly only cost $3m to make. I’ll take a look at specific details of the story/film in turn, purely so I don’t just end up writing one massive piece of waffle! For those of you that would care for a downloadable version of the article, you can donwload it directly here.

CHARACTER

Story and character. These two elements are intrinsically linked but in isolation, character is perhaps the most important aspect of any story. You can have an exciting, intriguing plot but if your central character is a one dimensional bore who the audience don’t care about, then it’s kind of irrelevant. The types of characters that audiences today respond to are also different to how they were a few decades ago. The anti-hero is a bit more fashionable now. We don’t like our good guys (and gals) to be villains per-se, but neither do we want them to be boy (or girl!) scouts either. Because the vast majority of people cannot identify with people who are perfect. Not on the inside anyway. The truth is people have flaws and weaknesses. They may be a good person but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a darker/weaker side. It’s this sense of humanity that audiences relate to nowadays. Just look at shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. There are some genuinely interesting characters there who we root for as an audience. But they’re all complex, they all have depth, they all have flaws. Admiring our central protagonists isn’t the most important thing. Being able to empathise with them, being able to relate to them, that’s what counts.

ELLISON OSWALT Ellison Oswalt is a complex chap. Objectively, we shouldn’t really like. And you may not actually like him that much. He lies to his family, he neglects them for his work, he can be cold and distant and his motivations are not always as pure as they should be. But he’s only human after all. He does love his family – yet his determination to reclaim his fame and his status consumes him. It’s not fed by a sense of entitlement or arrogance, it’s borne out of a fear of failure. He hasn’t written anything decent/profitable in a long time and his own doubts and insecurities about his ability are what drives him forwards. It isn’t that he doesn’t feel bad about what he is doing. His reaction to watching the Super 8’s is telling. He’s terrified, distressed and disturbed in equal measure. He’s not an unfeeling man. Just an obsessive and insecure one. And these character traits are readily identifiable and relatable. He also gets to a point where his desire to solve the case, to figure out just what is going on, is just as important to him as reclaiming his status as a successful author. And let’s face it, we want him to succeed. We don’t want him to give up his investigation into the crimes because we want to know who or what is behind them just as much as he does.

Character growth is also something that all writers have to consider. There is a nice little scene (well, two actually) that illustrates the growth or change in Ellison Oswalt in Sinister. His initial encounter with the Sheriff is a real clash of personalities and attitudes. The Sheriff may be blunt but he has the best interests of his town at heart – whereas Ellison clearly doesn’t give a shit and isn’t afraid to make that clear. Flash forward to act three when the Sheriff stops him on the road after he has abandoned his new house and Ellison’s attitude and behaviour towards the Chief is completely different. He admits that he was wrong. In fact, Ellison almost saves his soul when he finally decides to end his pursuit of the truth/fame and moves his family out of the house. However, as we know, it’s too little too late.

Doug Eboch outlines six questions to ask of a central protagonist – and each should be clearly identifiable. Here’s how they apply to Ellison Oswalt.

Who is the main character? Ellison Oswalt. He is the first character we see after the opening sequence and he is basically in every single scene thereafter.

Why do we care what happens to the main character? Ellison may be a career driven and selfish guy – but he’s someone who we can empathise with. He used to have success but he’s fallen on hard times and audiences tend to root for people who try to get back on the saddle after falling off again. He isn’t a bad person, just a flawed one.

What does he want? He wants to write a best selling book again and to move his family back to their old house (or a better one). He also wants to solve the murder case at hand.

What is the main character doing to get what they want? Ellison moves his family to a house where a terrible muder happened just so he can be as close to the investigation as possible. After discovering the Super 8 movies, he decides to conduct his own private investigation.

What is at stake for the character? On a material level, money and a nice house. On a personal level, pride and self-worth. However, what’s really at stake is his family.

What is the main thing that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal? The answer to this is two fold. The external obstacle is Ellison’s willingness to put himself and his family at risk but the main thing is the central antagonist, Baghuul. An ancient demonic entity who has marked Ellison and his family for death.

STRUCTURE There are lots of theories (and books!) about structure and there are many different interpretations of what rules or guidelines one should adhere to. The three act structure, first identified by Syd Field, is widely accepted as a tried and tested concept. Field didn’t invent this structure per-se, he merely theorised it through observation. At the end of the day, we all have our own personal takes on the best way to follow structure. I think the point is that there’s no golden rule as such, but that it provides a useful framework to hang your story on. So here is my own view on the structural elements of Sinister.

OPENING IMAGE Audiences nowadays are quite different to how they were twenty or thirty years ago and they are always evolving. They seem to have a shorter attention span and who can blame them? People lead busy lives and don’t have as much down time and the market is a much more saturated place.

TV shows and movies have to grab people’s attention within a very short space of time or they risk losing them. The competition is fierce. This is also true with screenplays to a certain extent. If the person reading it is a professional, paid (not fairly I may add!) script reader then the chances are they are going to have dozens of other scripts to read, probably before the day is out. If you haven’t grabbed their attention early on, then it’s more than likely that it’ll end up in the bin. The last 80 pages maybe excellent but if the first ten suck, then you’re in a bit of trouble.