Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as a True Crime novelist moving his family from place to place while searching for his next big story, one that will return him to the fame and fortune he enjoyed from his debut book. The movie begins with the family moving into a house which has a far darker secret than even Hawke’s character suspects. It’s a confident and fun film, with a torrent of scares amidst the deep, dark malaise, and it’s a found footage horror film a million miles away from the identikit shockers which are churned out every week.
Cargill’s position as long time film critic made his boundless enthusiasm for the film contagious. Too often critics fall into a jaded funk after a while and it was refreshing to see not only a decent film but a critical eye present on his own film as well as a respect and appreciation for the crowded arena he’s jumping into.
He was in town for FrightFest last August to introduce the film and take part in the Q&A afterwards, it was his first time in London and, after my lobbying for an Alamo Drafthouse London branch, we sat down to talk about the current state of horror films.
“There’s something very interesting going on right now, we’ve had the movement which is derogatorily called Torture Porn and that was a big push towards very realistic horror, very realistic gore, putting people in these terrible situations. And then my country went to war twice. And we have sent well over a million soldiers away, we have a significant percentage of our population who went over there, many of whom love movies and they would watch films and become very cineliterate. Then they come back from war and the last thing they want to see is someone burned alive.
What they started complaining about was that they wanted monsters, they wanted things that weren’t real, but still scared them. I don’t need a guy in a man in Eastern Europe chainsawing a teenager. I need a boogeyman. That’s when you saw things like Paranormal Activity take off. Found footage films kept that realism but it offered supernatural creatures. It reminded everyone how much they loved supernatural horror, and so people are making supernatural horror films. But there’s also a predication towards people trying to repeat what’s been done. They see what movies have sold and they want to make that. They don’t think how think how can we take things from this supernatural horror and make something wholly new. That’s what we did with Sinister. We wanted it to feel familiar, like a haunted house movie but once you’re watching it there was nothing you were watching that you could identify as something you’ve seen before.”
Consciously avoiding things which had been done before?
“Absolutely. That’s how I am as a writer. If there’s an idea I ask myself if it would make a great story, and it there’s something there the next question I ask myself is if that story has been told before, and how? What are most well known, and least known… I search for the story we haven’t seen.”
On the creation of the mythology and how much to show of the supernatural element.
“It’s about what we all share, these primal instincts. The key towards making a good horror story is to find these primal aspects, work out why it scares us and then exploit that. You have to create this sense of dread and that’s what we did with the opening shot of the film (see below). It’s all about saying that no-one in the film is safe. You are not safe. The first time we screened it there was an audible gasp, and then every scene after is affected. Scott [Derrickson , director] did that visually, there are several scenes where there are details, images in the background, telling the background story. We had to create a consistent mythology so there’s not a line in the script which we put in because we thought it was cool, everything is there to build the story.”
Working out the drip feed of fear.
A lot of that Scott brought to it. I brought the idea and he brought the total understanding of how to communicate the story to the audience. I approach everything as a critic, I imagine how each scene will play to the critics and Scott thinks of everything in terms of how the audience so there’s a happy medium. He’s so tuned into that, I’d call him when I needed to get from one scene to another and he’s say we’d use an exterior shot and have the family… and it worked great. And a lot of the scares too, as much as the idea is scary and it came from my nightmare many of the biggest and scariest scenes of the movie came from Scott.
What was your first image? First spark.
It came from a nightmare. I made a terrible mistake and watched The Ring before I went to sleep. I had a nightmare about going into my attic and there is a box of Super 8 film I thread the projector and I turn it on and what I see is the opening shot of the film.
So I wake up terrified and that image haunted me for years and I knew I had to do something with it. So I crafted the story around and created the mythology of Sinister. What’s really interesting is people are telling me they have nightmares and that says something about the art – that I’ve taken this nightmare and caused other people to have the same nightmare. That’s such a cool concept.
Like Rian Johnson’s Looper Sinister is an original idea which builds on the themes and ideas of the best films of its genre. It succeeds because it holds true to its story and its characters. I asked him if there was any talk of a sequel (“Only if I can call it Sinisters and have a load of projectors all across the country…”) and as I was leaving I asked if he was looking forward to more nightmares,
Cargill’s first novel, Dreams and Shadows is out here in the UK next year, Sinister is out right now…