My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
Do not fret because of evildoers.
Do not envy the wicked; for the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out.
For what is the use of a man gaining the whole world if he loses or forfeits his own soul?
Luke 9:25 J.B. Phillips N.T.
Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson’s well-made horror film left me with a deep sense of unease. After watching it, the following thoughts came to me. Over the past two centuries writers of the horror story genre have devel- oped several categories. These include:
1. “Man crosses forbidden natural/divine boundaries” —Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde; The Fly: and Jurassic Park (to name but a few, including both books and movies.)
2. Edgar Allen Poe wrote stories in which a man’s evil acts become his undoing, as in “The Tell tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.”
3. He also delved into a third category, the supernatural horror story in which evil is overcome and punished, as in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Others in this category are the Dracula, zombie, and vampire stories. In them Good is pitted against Evil, with the latter eventually losing. The Exorcist is one of the best of this category, even though the filmmakers retained only a portion of the novelist’s theology.
4. However, in the Sixties a Manichean type of story became popular. (This dualistic philosophy/theology, dating back to the Persian Mani who lived in the 3rd century, teaches that the universe is divided between two equal forces, Good and Evil locked in an eternal battle, with humans free to choose one or the other.) Thus we have Halloween; Nightmare on Elm Street; Scream; Friday 13; and others, all of which were followed by sequels. Evil might be put down at the end of the story, but in a Manichean universe it is never knocked out. It will return, and the battle will have to be fought over—again and again, until film V or VI exhausts the series (or rather the audience’s patience).
5. Director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill’s Sinister belongs to still another category, what we might call nihilist. Though I can’t recall its name, I remember a film that ended in a cemetery where our hero finished off the evil one (zombie or something else), and then just as he relaxed and was ready to walk away, a mutilated arm bursts forth from the grave and dragged him down into the depths. Cut to end credits. You can see dozens of these on FearNet.com, with Evil frequently prevailing.
In Sinister Ellison Oswaldt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime author who is trying to regain the fame that was once his several years earlier when his book was a New York Times best seller. In a way, you could say that he is a Truman Capote trying to equal or top In Cold Blood. Ellison’s modus operandi is to uproot and move his family of four to the area of the crime so he can get the feel of its atmosphere and to make it easy to carry out his research without being separated from his loved ones for a long period of time. This time, however, what he has not told his long suffering wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is that they have moved into the house belonging to the family that had all been murdered by hanging.
As they are moving in the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) tries to intimidate Ellison, not wanting the notoriety of the author’s activities to spoil the town’s tranquility. However his deputy (James Ransone), sort of a Barney Fife with brains, secretly agree to help him gather information in exchange for an acknowledgment in the new book. Needless to say, matters do not go as Ellison intends. There are scenes of murders of entire families in other parts of the country that we see several time, as well as phantom visitors in the house. The murders were filmed with an 8mm camera, and both camera and films are found in a box when Ellison explores the attic. This at first seems highly unlikely (how could the Sheriff have overlooked this?), until the supernatural enters in. Connecting the murders are strange symbols that hark back to a Babylonian god Bughuul (who is given the less imposing name of Mr. Boogie in the credits).
Although I am disappointed by the filmmaker’s embrace of a pagan nihilism, the film is interesting in its revelation of the character of a man who at first believes that he is engaged in a mission for good, of telling the story of unfortunate families, maybe even solving the crime after the authorities had failed. But gradually Ellison reveals that it is the fame, and its money perks that motivate him, He is willing not only to sell his soul for the sake of this, but also put his young children and his wife in harm’s way.
It is interesting to note that Scott Derrickson has worked on both sides of the nihilistic pagan/Christian divide. He is also the director of The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, a film that people of faith can embrace because of the incredible love of its heroine who believes so much in God that she is willing to sacrifice herself in the hope of helping others.
1. How did you feel at the end of this film? Relieved and assured that Good can overcome Evil?
2. What films of the various categories have you seen, and which did you especially like? What were your reasons for this?
3. What has apparently happened to Ellison that he would take such a risk as moving into the house of the murdered family? In other words, what are his core values now?
4. How is this a good example of the results of “vaunted ambition,” such as we see in a drama like Mac Beth?
5. What do you make of the rise in popularity of the nihilist horror genre?
6. Those who have seen Grand Canyon might enjoy comparing Steve Martin’s filmmaking character Davis with Ellison. Davis, while recovering in the hospital from a gunshot wound inflicted by a robber, has an epiphany leading him to switch from making senseless bloody action and horror films to creating more uplifting ones. What does he do, and why?