Morality tales aren’t really about nuance; they’re about getting across a point clearly and forcefully. I’m willing to forgive Sinister its one-dimensionality because it achieves two modest goals requisite for most great horror films: 1) it’s creepy, and 2) it is about evil. The first goal ought not be much of a stretch for someone as well traveled in horror filmmaking as Derrickson or the producers of Blumhouse, which has recently rolled in the dough with other morally-inflected shockers like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sinister is of a piece with those films, relying primarily on atmosphere, suspenseful build-up, and cheap-but-effective jump scares.
Sinister isn’t a “great” horror film, but it possesses intelligence. A great many scenes take place in near-total darkness, in which perhaps a cell phone screen is the only light, if there’s any lighting at all. While submerging the protagonist in darkness makes sense thematically, it strains the eyes and lets Derrickson off the hook for staging thoughtful compositions — contrast the many scenes of Ethan Hawke stumbling around his house with any similar scene from John Carpenter’s Halloween, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.
As frustrating as these scenes are, Derrickson has a firm grasp of pace and blocking for his expositional sequences. A climactic dust-up between husband and wife near the film’s climax has both characters moving back and forth between light and shadow, suggesting that, even should one of them escape the darkness, the other will only take his or her place. Another eerie shot depicts Hawke sprawled out on a couch as the sun rises after a long, terrifying night being stalked by ghostly children. The length of the previous sequence contrasted with the compressed coming of day again implies the stranglehold the darkness has over the course of the story’s trajectory.
Beyond the nigh-omnipresent darkness, almost all of the action in the film is confined to a single suburban residence. While the house is spacious enough, the fact that Hawke’s character — a true-crime writer at work on his latest make-or-break novel, based on murders that happened his new home — never ventures outside reinforces how trapped he is inside the narrative, the headspace of the crime he’s chronicling. Natural light, when it appears, is usually only filtered in through the windows, and even then it’s filtered through clouds or interrupted by trees — most significantly, the tree from which the previous occupants were hung until dead.
Concentrating the action within this single space ties into the thematic goals of the film. Ellison Oswalt has, in short, allowed his selfish desire for fame and fortune obscure the importance of his family. In particular, his unique profession and his obsession with its dark facets poses a moral quandary for the environment he and his wife are trying to create for their children. Derrickson none-too-subtly suggests that inviting the contemplation of (and obsession with) evil into one’s home portends disaster for the spiritual welfare of the family, especially children. Just as Ellison’s decision to literally live with the ghosts of evil deeds is an extension of his own selfish desires, bringing his family into orbit around corrupts its innocence and harmony. This is embodied literally in the film’s demonic villain, but there’s no mistaking Ellison’s complicity in the fate that befalls them at the film’s finale: if you dwell in darkness, darkness will claim you.
Each scene is essentially a temptation and a warning for Ellison. He repeatedly chooses to expose himself to evil for personal profit. Derrickson may or may not be critiquing his own audience in the way he demonstrates the toll watching Bughuul’s snuff films takes on Ellison’s soul, but I think he’s well aware that the difference between a snuff film and a fictional horror film is catharsis (as opposed to the temporary slaking of lust). Not to mention that the purpose of Bughuul’s home movies is to perpetuate evil, while Sinister’s purpose is to warn the voyeuristic audience of its deleterious effects.
Derrickson has spoken before of his Christian faith, though he doesn’t consider himself “a Christian filmmaker,” and that’s a crucial context for understanding what he’s doing here. Spiritual conflict is one of the most integral components of many classic horror films, and though not all of them are Christian, the Christian logic — and its inherent contradictions — that suffuses Western civilization is frequently manifested in them. One of the key problems Christians have wrestled with for millennia is how to confront evil. In Ephesians, Paul writes,
Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that is visible is light.
As usual, the apostle’s way with words is maddeningly incoherent. How are deeds of darkness to be exposed if they must not even be mentioned? How can everything visible be “light” if that includes the exposed deeds of darkness? Then there is the much-quoted (and most often out of context) verse from Colossians: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” For a lot of Christian moralists, this means that watching R-rated movies or openly discussing sin equates to setting one’s mind on earthly things. Of course, Paul is simply instructing the congregation at Colossus not to live like hedonistic libertines, which has little to do with the artistic contemplation of such lifestyles. (He later instructs slaves to obey their masters in everything, an injunction virtually no Christian today takes literally, which makes one wonder why the earlier verse is so relevant to keeping kids away from movies with sex scenes. But I digress.)
By example, of course, none of the apostles shied away from engaging with what they viewed as immoral, evil, or heretical. The whole premise of missionary work is to wade directly into the fields sown by un-heavenly hands and pull up the weeds so a better seed may be planted; it’s dirty work. If it’s wrong to engage directly with the problem of evil in the world, each time Paul, Peter, or the other apostles addressed the moral problems faced by their congregations, they would have been committing grave sins. Instead, by salting their epistles with a little fire and brimstone, they offered effective and colorful guideposts by which their nascent flocks could navigate the rocky terrain of their new religion.
This has long been the function of horror as a distinct genre. Even the deeply irreverent Matthew Lewis — who brooked no sympathy with the Church — justifiably condemned the hypocritical protagonist of The Monk, which, despite its satirical edge, is a work deeply soaked in a moral worldview. As Ambrosio did before him, Ellison Oswalt walks the wide road to damnation so that we might see the light. ☕