'Sinister': Local Boy Makes Evil

Cargill's 'Sinister' premieres at SXSW

Before death.
Before death.

Weather-wise, it's been a moist opening for SXSW 2012, with the lightning, thunder, and rain making it feel like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg out there -- minus the singing, dancing and music. The soggy mood only served to underscore the creep-factor for the midnight premiere of Sinister, co-scripted by Austin's C. Robert Cargill.

Was it worth the wet wait? Absolutely, despite starting a good 75 minutes late and wrapping up only after a Scott Weinberg-moderated Q&A took us all the way to 4am.

Cargill (aka Massawyrm of Aint It Cool News), working with with director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), nails the intriguing pitch "Whatever happened to the guy who found the found footage?" to a tree and lets it dangle, dripping red and dancing in the wind. Sinister falls outside the realm of both current (read: ultraviolent/"reality"-based) Hollywood horror and aspires to something both more primal and somewhat more traditional, the "old dark house" horror film sub-genre married to the outright supernatural. Only in this case, the house, a suburban banality, isn't all that old. It is, in fact, a perfectly ordinary ranch style yawn. It's what's inside the house that renders Sinister as effective as it is.

And that would be genre first-timer Ethan Hawke as true-crime writer Ellison, who moves his wife and two kids into a new home that was previously the sight of a gruesome quadruple homicide/kidnapping. Although he's using the property's horrific history as a jumping off point for his new book, Ellison naturally keeps the house's background to himself, thus breaking Happy Marriage Rule Number One: Trust is the foundation. Looking remarkably weary and booze-bleary, Ellison is prone to explosions of temper, but also great tenderness towards his family. He's a struggling writer desperate for a big payoff that'll support his family and allow him to continue his own work without the added hassle of a teaching gig.

Soon enough, he discovers an old film projector and a box of Super-8 home movies in the attic that unspool to reveal the murders (and more) in gorgeous, scratchy Super-8. More than a little freaked by the snuff film and assorted noises in the attic, Ellison locks himself in his office, drinks heavily, obsesses, and takes to falling asleep with a baseball bat in his arms.

Sinister's parallels/homages to Stephen King's The Shining are right out in the open -- all work and no play makes scary shit happen -- but this low-budgeted film has its own style of eerieness to spare, thanks in large part to an amazing score by Christopher Young (Hellraiser) and Derrickson's frills-free direction, which keeps the audience off kilter from the insidiously messed-up opening titles to the final shock-shot. That's not easy to pull off when you're shooting on what is essentially one single set, but Sinister lives up to its name in all kinds of freaky ways. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was the damp, but we were seriously spooked walking the three blocks back to our car in the dead of night.

Conceived by Cargill and Derrickson over half-a-dozen White Russians (dude!) at Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay in January 2011, Sinister's wicked-fast turnaround -- six months, give or take, from shoot to screening -- feels nothing short of providential for SXSW horror fans.

"It's no Martyrs, but this isn't your typical fun time Hollywood haunted house movie," noted Weinberg during the Q&A. "There's some dark, dark shit in this movie and we appreciate that."

"I've never made this kind of movie before," said Hawke, "Jason [Blum, Producer] sent me the script and I just found it absolutely terrifying. I watched Scott's The Exorcism of Emily Rose and I had to stop every ten minutes to catch my breath. I learned something new every day working with Scott."

So where did this dark, unnerving study in obsessive behavior and (literal) night terrors initially spring from?

"This actually came from a nightmare I had," said Cargill. "I had watched The Ring and then made the mistake of staying up very late working the night before...I was so exhausted I decided to take a nap. You don't sleep after a movie like The Ring, but I did go to sleep and ended up having a nightmare about going up into an attic…and finding a box of movies there. And the first movie I pull out is the movie from the opening sequence of Sinister."

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Sinister, C. Robert Cargill, Ethan Hawke

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