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.
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.
This idea of grabbing the audiences attention (whether that be a viewer or a reader) is especially relevant to horror movies. Think about it. Someone who goes to see a horror film wants and expects to be scared. If you have an opening scene that gets people’s attention in a horrific way, then all the better.
Sinister does just that. The first thing we see on screen is grainy Super 8 footage of a family hanging from a tree, their heads covered with sacks. They die before our very eyes. It’s almost as if we are watching a real life snuff movie. This opening thirty second sequence does three things. Firstly, it grabs our attention. It’s a single shot, there’s no dialogue and it forces the viewer to witness the deaths of children as well as adults. Secondly, it sets the tone of the movie and gives us an expectation of what is to come. The Super 8 movies form an integral part of the story and also provide some of the most chilling moments in Sinister. And lastly, it is important in terms of setting the story up and raising a question that both Ellison Oswalt and us as an audience will try and figure out during the first half of the movie. Who is filming this?
SETTING UP THE PREMISE Writers C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson waste little time in setting up their characters and their story. After the opening sequence, we are instantly introduced to our central protagonist and his family. It’d be a shame not to take a moment to mention the naming of Ethan Hawke’s character while we’re at it. The names of the characters that we write are sometimes considered to be something of an afterthought. Almost as if it doesn’t really matter. And don’t get me wrong, a well written character will not be ruined by an ordinary sounding name (John McClane!) but an interesting name almost adds an extra dimension to a character. Ellison Oswalt is a rather striking and memorable name. Characters like Luke Skywalker, Marty McFly, Donnie Darko and Ron Burgundy are all further examples of this concept.
Anyway, back to the set-up. Within the first five minutes of the film we are introduced to Ellison, his wife and their two children. They are moving into a new house and it doesn’t take us very long to find out why. The interaction between the cops tells us that he is something of a celebrity (or was a few years ago) and is a true-crime author. This is a useful way of providing exposition for central character(s) – have other characters talk about them. Ellison’s seemingly innocuous conversation with his daughter gives a clear insight into this characters primary motivation. He wants to write and sell another book. It’s the one clear constant that runs throughout most of this movie and it’s this motivation that makes him willing to risk his own (and even his family’s) safety for.
Deputy So-and-so’s conversation with the Sheriff gives us a little more exposition in terms of Ellison Oswalt’s renown. The Sheriff has a brief conversation that simmers with underlying tension and subtext but basically tells us that a) Ellison is unpopular in law enforcement circles, b) that Ellison doesn’t give a shit and vitally, C) that Ellison has moved his family into a house where people were murdered – AND that there is still a little girl missing. The dialogue here teases the mystery at hand and the Sheriff delivers a line that essentially acts as a challenge to both Ellison and us as an audience. ‘You can never explain something like this.’ he says. Oh but Ellison will try.
Ellison’s wife, Tracy, asks him if they have moved in ‘a few doors down’ from a crime scene. He allays her fears. Technically he hasn’t lied here – but in reality he has. Our initial impression of this man is of a career driven guy who is willing to lie to his loved ones in order to reach his goals. However, Ellison would have no real reason to think his family was actually at risk at this stage, so the audience are generally willing to cut him a little slack.
After this, Ellison goes back indoors and into his kitchen and looks outside at a huge tree – which we instantly recognise as the tree at the start of the movie. It’s confirmation, if we needed it, that the opening scene is directly linked to this story and these characters. He then goes to put some boxes away in the loft and discovers the box of Super 8 movies. All with seemingly innocent titles like ‘BBQ 79’ and ‘family hanging out’. All which will seem a lot more sinister later on. It initially feels like the catalyst yet it isn’t. It’s a precursor to the catalyst. We know we’ll be returning to these film reels real soon.
At this point we are 9 minutes into the film. That’s about nine or ten pages in screenplay form. We get an attention grabbing and tonally/thematically relevant opening, we get introduced to pretty much all of our main characters and set out the world they currently inhabit. We are also given insights into character motivation and most important of all – what this movie is really about. And the theme. Horror films are rarely over 100 minutes long and don’t have quite as much time to set things up as some other genres are allowed. And Sinister is a prime example of how to effectively and efficiently set up a story.
CATALYST The catalyst is that event where the life of the protagonist changes forever. Life can no longer be the same again. Every movie really HAS to have this moment – otherwise it’d make for a rather dull watch. Where this event happens though is a bit more fluid. Generally speaking though it usually occurs about halfway through act one. In Sinister, it initially feels as if this occurs about 9 minutes in when Ellison discovers the home videos in his loft. But it isn’t. He could just leave them there, none the wiser. I’m sure that at some point Baghuul would have found another way to have got him to watch them but that’s besides the point. Without discovering the tapes the catalyst could not occur, that is true. But the actual catalyst occurs 15 minutes in, when Ellison watches the first video of the family hanging from the tree in his back garden. There’s no turning back from this point. It’s this event that marks the beginning of a ‘new life’ for our protagonist.
DEBATE AND END OF ACT ONE Before the antagonist fully commits to this new life/path, we should really be seeing some internal debate. Ellison doesn’t call the police straight away but neither does he commit to investigating the case on his own. He rewatches the footage and makes some tentative notes, highlighting some active questions that remind the audience of the mystery at hand. ‘Who made the film?’ and ‘Where’s Stephanie’. He then watches another of the videos – ‘BBQ 79’. His reaction to this is to call the police. He dials, but hangs up after noticing a copy of his last hit ‘Kentucky Blood’ on his bookshelf. He had a choice. Alert the authorities or try and solve the case on his own, whilst writing a book about it. Doing the sensible, logical, most risk-free thing – or taking a risk. He decides to take the risk. It signals the end of act one.
MIDPOINT Generally speaking, the midpoint is usually a false victory. It’s one of the beats that is most open to interpretation however – and in fact, not every film choses to embrace the concept. The midpoint of Sinister is a little bit more vague than others – but it is there if you look hard enough. Around half way through the movie, Ellison enlists the help of Deputy So-and-so. It’s the first time that someone has been let in and in some way, provides a level of comfort for both the audience and Ellison himself. He’s not totally alone now. It feels like a small victory.
A couple of scenes after this, Ellison rewatches tapes of himself at the height of his fame where he seems a bit more idealistic about what he is doing. At one point in an old interview he says ‘I’d rather cut my hands off than write a book for money or fame’. Ellison is probably not being genuine when he makes those comments yet we assume (and hope) that present day Ellison understands the irony of this comment and will cease his own personal investigation. However, it doesn’t happen. Deputy So-and-so isn’t able to stop Ellison’s demise and neither is Ellison himself.
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN Blake Snyder identified the section between the midpoint and the end of act two as a time when the ‘bad guys close in’. Stakes are raised and the hurdles and problems get bigger for the protagonist. After the small victories of the midpoint, things quickly get a lot worse for Ellison and his family. Bughuul moves on his monitor at one point – confirming that the problems here are of a supernatural nature – and as we all know, these are often pretty difficult to overcome! Paranormal events in the house intensify – with the projector playing by itself during the night and Ellison being haunted by apparitions (that admittedly he can’t see) in his own home. He begins to lose his grip on reality – seeing Baghuul in his garden – and the risk to his children is all too apparent, with his son being found huddled in a shrub in the middle of the night. Ellison also falls out with his wife. She suggests they leave but he refuses. ‘This could be my big shot’ he tells her. The fact that them moving would only have accelerated his downfall is irrelevant at this stage as we don’t know that to be the case at this point in the story. Ellison flatly refusing to move his family out despite the obvious threat shows that he is in part, responsible for his own undoing. We also learn more about Bughuul during this passage of the story – and it’s not good news. He’s a pagan deity who is said to eat the souls of children.
BREAK INTO ACT THREE The break into act three comes quite late in the day in Sinister. It usually occurs about three quarters of the way through a movie. So in Sinister’s case you’d expect it to be in around 76 minutes in yet it actually occurs ten minutes after this. After seeing a bunch of dead kids watching snuff films in his loft, Ellison burns all the footage and decides to get his family out of the house. He has finally come to his senses. He isn’t willing to risk his family or his sanity any longer.
Little does he realise that he has actually signed his own death warrant. Third acts quite often involve a shift in location and in Sinister we follow the family as they move back to their old home. The good thing here is that the shift isn’t done purely to give the audience a visual break from the monotony of their new house (although it achieves this nevertheless), it is vital to the plot itself and therefore doesn’t feel random or forced.
FINALE Ellison moves his family back to their old home and appears to be safe. However, after he discovers the ‘extended cut’ versions of the super 8 movies and he gets a call from Deputy So-and-so, we and he realises that he is in grave danger. The murders were all committed by the missing children - and all the murders occur after the families move out of their haunted homes. However, this epiphany comes too late. Ellison’s daughter has already drugged him and proceeds to kill her father and the rest of her family. All climaxes should ideally be somehow tied in with the theme of the movie and the daughter delivers a line to her father (before she axes him to death!) that is rich with irony. ‘Don’t worry daddy, I’ll make you famous again’. It’s a nod to the one of the biggest themes of the entire story.
CLOSING IMAGE We began with a super 8 movie and we end with a close up of a new super 8 movie that has been added to Baghuul’s collection. ‘House Painting 12’. Oh, and then a cheap jump scare for good measure.
A STORY TO FIT A SMALLER BUDGET One of the reasons that Sinister is so impressive is that it is basically set in one location – the last five or six minutes aside. Single location stories are a bit of a double edged sword. The good thing about them is that they limit the production costs extensively. However, the flip side of this is that they can lead to a sense of monotony and become rather stale if not handled properly. The Purge for instance (another Ethan Hawke movie) is a good example of this. The vast majority of the film is set in one house and the scale of the plot feels rather restricted. The sequel on the other hand opened things up and is much more expansive in terms of location. This wasn’t the only reason why the sequel was a superior movie but it was definitely a factor.
Sinister, however, does two things. Firstly, it makes the house almost a character in itself. It’s a dark, foreboding and ultimately haunted place that Ellison locks himself away in. There’s a real sense that there is a threat out there willing to infiltrate his house but in truth the threat is already there. This place isn’t Ellison’s castle. The walls were breached a long time ago. The fact that a family were murdered there also adds to the macabre fascination of the house. It’s why, as a location, it never feels tedious and each room cleverly has a unique function. The kitchen is where we see the family interact as a group, the bedrooms are where we see characters revealing their doubts and fears and feelings to each other, Ellison’s study is where the investigative plot progresses and the loft...well, we all know about the loft!
The second thing that Sinister does is that it transports us to other locations through the use of Super 8 movies. These clips form the basis of a lot of the horror of the movie and shot on Super 8, not only are they eerily grainy and grind-house, they are also much cheaper to shoot! Ellison never leaves the room yet we feel as if we are in a different location thanks to the POV footage on the super 8 films. A very clever way of opening things up in a visual sense and making things feel a little bit less insular. It’s something worth considering when we speculatively write screenplays ourselves. Production companies will always pay more attention to projects that are financially viable.
RECURRING THEMES/MOTIFS One of the things that successful writers and film makers do is to introduce recurring themes and motifs in their movies. Audiences appreciate added layers to a story. It gives meaning to seemingly innocuous events/lines of dialogue and adds an extra depth to the movie. It’s sometimes easier to spot these second or third time around, yet subliminally, an intelligent audience will get some satisfaction from them on a first viewing.
Sinister has a number of these. In the third minute, Ellison walks into his daughters bedroom and she is painting on the wall. Is this just a unique character quirk? On the surface yes, but by the end, we realise it is anything but. Later on in the film, not only does she paint a family hanging from a tree on her bedroom wall, she also paints the image of the missing child on a door. And one of the last scenes of the film has Ellison’s daughter painting on the walls of their house, with blood. In fact, at one point, his daughter even says ‘Maybe one day I’ll paint something really good and be famous too!’. Oh the irony.
Here are a few more...
The naming of the Super 8 Movies. ‘BBQ 79’ ‘Family Hanging Out’, ‘Pool Party’. They seem innocent at first. Not so much later on. Plus they infer a rather morbid sense of humour on the antagonists part! Deputy So-and-So. A throw away name has actually become his official character name! (See Sinister 2!) The green liquid that is used on Ellison at the end of the movie, is also in the ‘Pool Party’ Super 8 Movie. Halfway through the movie, Ellison’s daughter brings him a cup of coffee. He is hard at work and at first we think it’s a scene that is about him neglecting his family for his writing. However the next coffee she makes him will be the last... The references to demonic threat are evident through the use of animals that pop-up throughout Sinister. A scorpion, a snake and a black dog (black shuck) all make an appearance and informed viewers will realise that these represent something diabolical.
BELIEVABLE ACTIONS AND CHOICES One of the biggest pet peeves of a lot of horror fans (including myself) is when a character commits a stupid or unbelievable action/decision. We’ve all seen movies rife with that. It’s lazy storytelling. All it does is annoy audiences and make them care less about what happens in the rest of the movie.
Ellison Oswalt is a character who seemingly makes a few decision that, on the surface, seem a little far fetched. Why would you move your family into a house where a family was murdered and not tell them? Why doesn’t he speak to the police after he views the first Super 8? Why doesn’t he tell his wife what is happening in act 2? Sinister gets round all this by creating a legitimate and believable motive for all of these actions. Ultimately, that all of these things would have a negative effect on Ellison’s external motivation – becoming a famous writer again. They are all choices which may make him seem selfish, obsessive and preoccupied with fame. We may not agree with them but at least we understand them. The result is a character that is flawed but realistic. And despite these faults of character, we still root for this character – which makes his demise all the more hard to watch.
WHY IS SINISTER UNSETTLING? Sinister is a rather unsettling and eerie movie (not for everyone – horror is subjective after all). A lot of this is down to a truly disconcerting score and Derrickson’s conscientious direction. However the story itself and the themes within are also important.
Firstly, there’s no hiding from the fact that a lot of the appeal of the film is down to the Super 8 movies. They are essentially ‘snuff’ movies. And they seem very real to us as an audience. The grainy home-footage is eerily plausible. It feels like we’re actually watching people die on screen. Found footage is an often maligned sub-genre but here, we get small snippets of it and it’s done to great effect.
Following on from this, the whole ‘moving into a murder house’ concept is also deeply unnerving for a lot of people. It’s thought that roughly half of people would refuse to move into a house if they knew a murder had occurred there. It’s not necessarily just the fear of ghosts/hauntings – it’s also the general feeling of unease at being somewhere where something awful had happened. It adds another layer of creepiness to proceedings.
Then we have Bughuul himself. Admittedly by the end, he has lost some of his appeal due to us seeing him from head to toe (seriously, he looks like a heavy metal band member!). But up until that point, who or what he is, is largely left up in the air. We don’t know who or what he is, we don’t really know what his motive is and we certainly haven’t got a clue how to stop/kill him. And that unseen threat – the threat from something that merely seems intent on destruction, is deeply frightening. You can’t logic with it and in this case, you can’t run away from it either. Also, there is something prfoundly malevolent about something that wants to hurt families and in particular, children.
Another deeply uncomfortable theme here is the idea of family members killing other family members. There’s an extra dimension of horror to this. That someone who we love – a daughter or son or brother or sister – could murder us in cold blood. It’s about turning things we associate with safety and security into the exact opposite. There’s also a deeper concept here that Ellison’s obsession with his work (and therefore his neglect of his children) has exacerbated one of his own family turning to something dark and insidious. Ellison may have a reaction to finding his children hiding in boxes or bushes in the middle of the night, or drawing dead kids on doors with crayons – but he does not heed the warnings.
Lastly, if you take a look at Sinister from a genre point of view, it’s a movie that seems to cross over from one to another quite seamlessly. Here are a few sub genres it merges together. Haunted house (ghost kids, projector turning itself on, power going off randomly) Found footage (The super 8 movies) Whodunit (the film is basically about a guy figuring out who or what killed these people) Home invasion (the threats are sometimes from outside; The black dog, seeing Baghuul in the bushes) Possession (Ellison’s daughter communicates with dead children and kind of becomes possessed by a demonic entity) Religious horror (Baghuul is a pagan deity but he’s a figure that’s kind of found in all religions. Plus there are several demonic references/symbols in the film)
DIALOGUE Horror films have often been accused of having weak, cliched dialogue. Part of this is down to the fact that a lot of horror movies have assumed that blood, violence, gore, atmosphere and jumps are what an audience is after when they go to see a horror film. Whilst that is true, modern horror audiences have been exposed to hundreds of horror movies and can spot inferior dialogue a mile away. Dialogue is one of the toughest parts of writing a screenplay - some people have a natural talent for it whilst others have to spend a long time mastering the craft.
Scott Derrickson is an experienced writer and although this was C Robert Cargill’s first screenplay, his many years as a film reviewer gave him a useful insight into what works and what doesn’t. The two of them produced a careful and assured script for Sinister and although we cannot analyse their writing style we can analyse what they did in terms of dialogue, simply by watching the film.
One of the key aspects of writing dialogue is that is must have a point. It can’t just be waffle. As a writer, you have a limited amount of time for your characters to speak and all dialogue must really do one of two things; either reveal something about the character(s) or move the story forwards. Any exchange that doesn’t do either one of these things is usually considered superfluous.
The opening lines of dialogue in Sinister are between Ellison and his wife Tracy as they are unloading boxes to put into their new house.
Tracy: Just one box? Ellison Oswalt: It’s for my office. It’s fragile. Tracy: Sissy.
Now this is a very short exchange and only takes a couple of seconds yet in that time we are told that a) this is a family moving into a new home, b) that these characters are a couple (and a seemingly happy