What became of Ringu‘s cursed VHS tape when the format inevitably receded, less than a decade later, into quiet obsolescence? Antiquation is in a sense the unspoken endgame of all technological horrors, from the disturbing televisual interference of Poltergeist to the early-web viral networking of FeardotCom, but Ringu‘s format specificity dated itself so quickly that even by the release of its Hollywood remake, in 2002, audiences were likely to be witnessing the terror of the haunted tapes from the relative comfort of DVD. It’s a contradiction of the subgenre: Most tech-horror films are inspired by a shared cultural anxiety surrounding the emergence of the new, but because such anxieties dissipate once the new is either naturalized or supplanted, their cinematic manifestations tend to seem culturally irrelevant almost as soon as they arrive. Relevance, in other words, is inherently temporary.
An under-acknowledged consequence of this contradiction is that the quality of appearing outdated, once accepted as a given, can be exploited to potent effect. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, for instance, provides a compelling example of how conspicuous regression can obviate planned obsolescence by embracing, rather than altogether ignoring, its casualties; a kind of meta giallo in which a meek foley artist descends into madness during the production of an Italian horror film, it fetishizes the overtly tactile dimension of its mid-‘80s recording-studio milieu, relishing—even romanticizing—the aesthetic qualities of a technology lost to time, in the process defamiliarizing it in its antiquation. (As a period piece, Berberian also has the distinct advantage of historical distance; it’s especially difficult to accuse a film of hewing to the genre’s typical zeitgeist-baiting when it operates from such an apparent remove.)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is not a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it similarly brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre.
But beyond a superficial fascination with the aesthetics of projector operation and a mild nostalgia for analog film, Sinister isn’t particularly interested in the technology that propels its narrative. A brief shot-reverse shot roughly 20 minutes in expresses, with a simplicity bordering on elegance, everything important to the film: Middle-aged true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), surviving on only the fumes of his first novel’s decade-old commercial and critical success, has moved with his wife and two young children into the site of an unsolved murder in the hope that the specter of death will serve as a muse. It isn’t long before Oswalt has stumbled upon a trove of revelatory evidence in the form of a box of dusty Super 8 film—a half-dozen reels the police left conveniently undiscovered and which, following standard horror-film convention, contain footage of the unsolved murder as well as several murders seemingly just like it. Oswalt’s discovery of this footage takes him from perverse curiosity to understandable repulsion, and it’s after watching only the second film in the box, in which a helpless family is set ablaze in their car, that Oswalt takes stock of what he’s uncovered and decides to call the police. But while on hold, anxiously pacing his recently unpacked study, something catches his eye: A few stray copies of Oswalt’s acclaimed book, Kentucky Blood, are stacked loosely on his shelf, drawing him near.
Sinister has by this point dispatched a great deal of expository information: Oswalt has written several books since Kentucky Blood, but has failed each time to replicate its success; that his financial situation is so dire that, should he fail once more, he will be forced to resort to an unglamorous life in academia; and, courtesy of an astonishing single-take conversation between Oswalt and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), that the future of his marriage hinges on the success of his latest authorial endeavor. What’s beautiful is that the simple shot-reverse shot which ends Oswalt’s call to the police—one shot of Kentucky Blood, the other of his face staring at them intently before promptly hanging up—articulates the enormity of this pressure and all that it means for Oswalt in a single, wordless moment. This is an object lesson in the efficacy of classical editing: two nondescript shots made powerful when glued together, the Kuleshov effect in practice.
This emphasis on a personal crisis has major implications, particularly as the film’s expected horror conventions enter into play and Oswalt, by this point believably obstinate, barely notices the horror movie ramping up around him. It’s also what most sharply distinguishes Sinister from its many tech-horror contemporaries: Because he’s driven only by an obsessive need to solve a mystery and write a successful book, Oswalt is neither drawn to or repulsed by the specific technology he’s using, which effectively empties that technology of the kind of vaguely defined meaning or import its place in a film of this kind typically entails. A key gesture mid-film further undermines the significance of film as a medium: Oswalt, scouring one of the 8mm films for murder-mystery clues, pauses the projector on a single frame, keeping it there until it suddenly ignites from the heat and begins burning a portion of the reel. Googling “How to edit Super 8 film” helps patch the problem, but now realizing—or perhaps remembering, given that he’s old enough to have conceivably used a projector like this in his youth—the fragility of his equipment, Oswalt decides for the sake of safety to record the projected footage with a miniDV camera and transfer it to his laptop, where he can peruse the films freely and easily.
And just like that, any sense of the medium’s power or sanctity is dispelled. The films, Sinister cannily suggests, are essentially the same whether screened from a computer or projected onto a wall; the ghosts which haunt the images don’t discriminate between formats, bound to the content rather than to how that content is displayed. This is indeed a provocative proposition—especially now, as industry pundits loudly mourn the death of the medium. Shifting the focus from a fear of contemporary technology du jour to a fear of specific images lends Sinister a certain theoretical innocence, liberating it from the race to cultural relevance that so quickly dates ostensibly similar tech-horror projects; and because it’s never bound to a pretense of social substance, the film is free to explore the aesthetic qualities of the technology on display without paying lip service to some vague idea of signification.
Sinister, perhaps surprisingly given its roots as a low-budget genre film, is exceptionally beautiful, and so it's quite a relief that Summit's Blu-ray manages to do it justice. The film's aesthetic—in particular its striking use of light (or lack there of)—all but requires an impeccable transfer to work, with the black levels in particular being of utmost importance. The wide swaths of shadow throughout, not just at night, but in daytime also, are deep and inky, with a great range of darkness that brings out detail when needed. This disc's 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is similarly impressive, bringing in both Christopher Young's stellar ambient-noise score and the complex sound design in with depth and robustness.
Not much, unfortunately, but what's here is quite good. Two separate commentary tracks, one by director Scott Derrickson and the other by Derrickson and his co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, offer a lot of insight into the production process, showing especially how much control and consideration Derrickson exerted over every element of the film's design. (Derrickson is a self-professed commentary-track junkie, and it shows.) A handful of deleted scenes prove disposable and two brief featurettes are fine, if not exactly essential.
Personal, understated, and surprisingly strange, Scott Derrickson's Sinister is one of the most compelling horror films of the past decade.