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Saturday, October 24, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 19: Sinister (2012)

Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson

Ethan Hawke:  Ellison Oswalt
Juliet Rylance:  Tracy Oswalt
Michael Hall D'Addario:  Trevor Oswalt
Clare Foley:  Ashley Oswalt
Fred Dalton Thompson:  Sheriff
James Ransone:  Deputy So & So
Vincent D'Onofrio:  Professor Jonas

Well, this is a bit of a coincidence. Two days after reviewing The Quiet Ones, a horror movie about occult powers with occasional interludes into found footage, I am reviewing Sinister, which can be summed up the same way. This film has elements of a mystery sprinkled in to flavor the mix while the Hammer movie was more about science fiction (well, mad science fiction, but it was from the studio that revitalized the Frankenstein cycle in the Fifties so we'll roll with it). This film also has something to say about celebrity and fame in addition to trying to jolt the audience, which means that it's one of those reasonably rare creatures, a horror movie that also has something to say about contemporary society. 

But before it can start making you think, the movie wants to make you shudder. It starts with a found-footage sequence that doesn't have any context at this point. As the soundtrack crackles and pops a grainy 8mm home video is shown (completely with a sprocket hole showing on the left side of the image. Someone is severing a sturdy, thick limb on a tree and as that branch falls, four people with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks are hoisted into the air to kick and struggle in futility. Incidentally, this movie shows (like the first Final Destination did) that hanging is a horrible, painful, brutal way to go. Usually in Westerns and the like it's a quick snap and anyone who wants the character's boots can have them (which is possible, but only with a long drop and a heavy knot placed in the right spot to break the victim's neck). But since this is a horror movie, it starts out trying to horrify. The kids stop struggling first, then their parents. And then the film can start. Also, it's telling that the film has been carefully set up--the hanging victims are lined up by height and their ropes are slung over an even higher branch so that they'll be lifted up as the counterweight branch goes down. And the person cutting through that heavy tree limb is standing behind the tree so that they do not appear in the trophy film of the murders they're committing. It's maybe forty seconds of film but it speaks volumes about what is going on in the film so far.

The narrative proper starts with the Oswalt family moving into their new Pennsylvania home. Dad Ellison is toting a single box into his office, for he is a fragile creature moving fragile equipment. While everyone's either emptying the family SUV or studiously avoiding helping with that (Ashley, the Oswalts' daughter, is painting on her bedroom wall rather than carrying boxes; she didn't want to move in the first place and feels that she's justified in not doing anything to assist her parents). The viewer learns that Ellison didn't necessarily want to move to this little town in the Keystone State, but the story he's writing is in that town. Financial pressures mean that the family's been uprooted and replanted far away from everything that the kids knew about and all their friends. Honestly, I can understand why Ashley is miffed. Ellison says that he would have had to take work he didn't want to take in order to keep the old house in the old neighborhood (though I don't think writing college textbooks would be all that bad compared to what he wants to be doing, myself).

In an attempt to keep things going smoothly during the moving process, Ellison makes his daughter a promise:  Once he sells this new book that he's writing, they'll move back to the old town if she doesn't like it in the new one. But she has to make a good-faith effort to enjoy herself in the new surroundings. Peace restored (and the rule that Ashley is only allowed to paint in her own bedroom, not on any other walls), it's time to move some more stuff. And it looks like those money woes have hit the Oswalts hard enough that they are their own moving crew. Having packed all my worldly possessions into boxes to take them to an apartment, back to my parents' house during Jobpocalypse 2014, and then back to another apartment, let me just say that hiring movers was the smartest thing I did at any point in the entire process. 

While Ellison goes out to get more things from the SUV outside his wife Tracy tells him the sheriff has arrived (which both of them were expecting, but perhaps not so soon). Tracy tells her husband to be nice. Well, more precisely she tells him to be nice this time. So visits from law enforcement personnel are commonplace to the point that they have a routine--and whatever they're doing, Tracy's used to being targeted for petty interference by cops all the time. She specifically mentions speeding tickets but I'm sure there's plenty of stuff someone with a badge, a gun and a grudge could wind up doing to the family if they felt like they were going to get away with it.

Ellison turns out to be a true-crime writer (he mentions Kentucky Blood as a book he'd be happy to inscribe for the sheriff, played by anthropomorphic cheek jowl and political afterthought Fred Thompson). The sheriff, on the other hand, says he'd be happiest if the Oswalts packed up their stuff and drove away rather than having them stay in his community. Turns out that he's more a critic of Oswalt's later work than anything (he says that he has indeed read all the books, and the earlier ones were significantly better than the later output because the later books had bad info that ruined prosecutions for killers). And I bet that stings more than Mace to Ellison, because he knows the sheriff is right. 

Also, one of the book titles that the sheriff mentions is Blood Diner, which is a cannibal-restaurant movie that I will wind up having to watch sooner or later for another HubrisWeen. 

The argument continues--the sheriff wants the community to be able to heal after a recent trauma, while Oswalt sees a book. Something bad went down in the area, and whatever it was, there's a missing girl that the sheriff claims must be dead by now--and if she is alive, there won't be a way to find her. Hmmm. Wonder if this has anything to do with the family that was lynched in the opening sequence?

The talks fully break down as Ellison and the sheriff talk smack to each other, and the sheriff says that the Ellisons moving into the house that they've selected is in amazingly poor taste. Tracy noticed the sheriff pointing to the house and asks her husband if they've moved on the same block as a crime scene (again). Then she says she doesn't want to know. I bet she's going to be super angry by the end of the first act, especially because her husband promises they didn't move next to a murder house and is likely telling the absolute truth while concealing something much worse. You can't trust writers. They know how to manipulate language to tell you what they want you to know. And when Ellison looks out the back porch door to see a familiar-looking tree with the limb sawn off, well...he's technically right that they didn't move near a murder scene this time.

While putting stuff away in the attic, Elison finds a scorpion (in Pennsylvania!) scuttling around; he drops the box of heavy things on it since that's the best he can do with no time to plan. Already in the otherwise empty attic is a box containing an 8mm film projector and several reels of home movies (although "Family Hanging Out '11" might mean something worse than the song from Birdemic). Over a takeout Chinese dinner we learn that the family's experiencing a pretty serious economic crunch thanks to the bad housing market. The Oswalts have moved into the new place while still making payments on the old one because it hasn't sold yet, and Ellison tells his understandably sullen son Trevor that if they drop their asking price any lower they'll be losing money on the sale.

Trevor wants a tour of the crime scenes that his dad will be writing about (if he only knew...) and Tracy says he's absolutely not old enough for that scene (if she only knew...). To hear Trevor tell it, letting him know what went down will just save time because everyone at school will treat him like a freak for having a dad who writes murder books anyway, and they'll be giving him a synopsis whether his mom likes it or not. An argument almost breaks out, but instead there's a pair of rules set down and the subject is changed. Rule One for the kids:  Stay out of their father's office (just like Oculus!); Rule One for dad:  Keep the office locked. There. Everything should be fine now. Especially because Tracy said one of those things that absolutely won't bite her in the ass later:  She doesn't want to hear another word about the murder case that led them to...well, nobody's said the name of the town yet. I'm just gonna call it Undisclosed, Pennsylvania.

That night, Tracy and Ellison talk about why they're in Undisclosed and how the work affects Ellison's moods (and how those moods in turn influence the whole family). It turns out that Ellison was a fiction writer before hitting the success jackpot with Kentucky Blood, and that his wife would rather he went back to making things up instead of chronicling horrible shit happening to innocent people. To hear Ellison tell it, he just needs one more successful book and things are going to turn out great for everyone. And Tracy's got his back, but she really thinks that there might not be another big hit out of nowhere for her husband. Better that he accepts that if it's true and lives his life with his family doing what he can rather than attempting to get another best-selling true crime book. Nobody's voices are raised and there's still obvious affection on both parents' faces, but Tracy also says if things go bad ("like last time") she's taking the kids and moving out to couch-surf with her sister. The couple agrees that it's a fair ultimatum.

No pressure there, Ellison.

Of to the office for Ellison the writer, who starts working on his charts and research while the soundtrack goes kind of industrial. There's a crime scene photo that shows the attic completely empty, so how did a box of home movies get there? And who put it there? And what's on them, anyway? Well, the answer to the last question becomes apparent when Ellison decides to thread up one of the reels and give it a spin (he tacks up a white sheet to serve as a screen, and there's a neat tactile little sequence of Ethan Hawke threading the projector--I don't know how many people in the reading audience have ever worked with old A/V equipment but there's a pleasure to be found getting the bastard things to work after fiddling with them (I have less-than-fond memories of the old projector I occasionally used while working at the library in my home town).

The home movies are the family that used to live in the Oswalt house, playing in the yard and having a picnic. But the soundtrack goes creepy and there's a jump cut to everyone in the family except for one daughter standing underneath the tree with nooses around their necks. It's the footage that opened the film, and apparently the trophy left by the killer after murdering the family that lived in the house and kidnapping their youngest daughter. The killer would have to develop his own film, one assumes, because there's no way you could just take that stuff to a Fotomat and have them work it up without everyone in the history of photography calling the police.

Ellison watches the footage a second time, taking notes and undoubtedly thinking of the blockbuster he's going to write when this story gets out. He also downs a couple glasses of Scotch while watching the reels, which is understandable. If he's got an IQ above 102, Ellison has to be wondering about one question more than any other:  Assuming the killer took that home movie, why would it be left somewhere else? The only explanation for the footage is that it's a trophy, and trophies get mounted in a hunting lodge or shown off in a display case. They don't get boxed up and dropped off for somebody else to discover. Ellison goes outside to listen to the tree branches creaking in the wind while he mulls it over, then walks around his dark shadowy house while the wind howls and floorboards creak, like all sensible people who realize they've got a serial killer's trophy collection would do. Of course a shadowy figure walks in front of him so that the viewer can see it, but it's just his daughter looking for the bathroom in an unfamiliar house. This time.

Feats of domesticity taken care of, Ellison goes back to his study and spools up another film, making sure to get his fingerprints all over the film, the can, the projector and the reels. It starts out as a family fishing trip (I'd guess from the mid-to-late Seventies based on the clothing and Tupperware on display). The family is duct taped and bound in their road yacht of a station wagon after the inevitable jump cut; the killer throws a firebomb at their car and keeps rolling till the reel runs out.

Look, Ellison, I know you and the sheriff got off on the wrong foot with each other, but if you show that guy your films he'll have to bring you in on the investigation in order to help figure out what the hell has been going on with the killing in his jurisdiction as well as the ones that happened elsewhere. Oh, and because you don't feel the need to ever have a good night's sleep again, why not watch the film labeled "Pool Party '66" while you're at it?

Holy shit--if there's one killing in 1966 and another in 2011, that is one incredibly well-preserved murderer. Or a group of them doing their home-movie-recorded thing for decades. Ellison, get on the phone with the sheriff now and tell him what you've got. Obviously you have visions of best-sellers dancing in your boozy head right now but there's no way you won't have one with this story. Get on The Man's good side for once and you'll have the satisfaction of someone you dislike telling the world how great you were, the satisfaction of being internationally famous when your book hits and the satisfaction of making a shit ton of money.

There follows another "walking around in the dark house" sequence" when Ellison starts looking for his daughter again, thinking he heard her moving around. Instead it's actually Trevor experiencing shrieking night terrors after hiding in a big cardboard box. The family's alarmed, but not surprised, and hopefully things are going to go back to normal soon. Ayup.

The next morning Tracy and the kids leave for school and errands; Ellison starts watching more film clips. The pool party one features people duct taped to pool furniture and yanked into their in-ground pool to drown and this time there's a creepy pale-faced, deep-eye-socketed figure standing under the water. Hey, Ellison, you just made a discovery that will land your book on the best-seller list for a few years if you can get proof of that. Unfortunately the writer doesn't know something about film projectors:  those suckers run hot. When he stops the film to take a closer look at the figure in the pool he apparently didn't realize that leaving the film on one frame will eventually cause the film to melt--and if you're not lucky, catch on fire. Which it does. Dude, celluloid can't be paused like a DVD. I would have thought you were old enough to know this. And, while I'm mentioning this, let me praise the filmmakers for including that in this sequence because if they didn't, you'd be reading about me carping about it for a paragraph or two.

Some quick online research leads Ellison to learn belatedly how to work with Super 8, but when he splices the film back together there's only a couple frames that show the creepy figure, and only a little bit of him in profile. Doing that apparently took most of the day because he's still working on capturing the footage to his laptop when Tracy and the kids come back home. Trevor decided to get on everyone's bad side at school by drawing the murder scene from several months ago on a classroom whiteboard--in permanent marker, so everyone's going to get to keep looking at that for a good long while. Mom grounds him and then wants to talk to Ellison, and I just bet that will go really well (SPOILER:  It does not). The blocking and camerawork in the argument is actually very well done, with the scene ending on Ellison looking out the patio door at the Murder Tree in his backyard. It also ends without Tracy knowing that they've moved into the house that is also a crime scene and the last place anyone saw the murdered family's youngest kid alive.

Ellison captures another reel to his laptop; this one starts on what appears to be glasses of absinthe in a kitchen (they're filled with a nearly luminous green liquid, but I don't know what exactly they're supposed to be full off--possibly Green River cut with super-soldier serum?). The person holding the camera sneaks through a house, going upstairs to a bedroom to reveal people tied to their beds getting their throats cut and bleeding out. The stalker goes to everyone's room in turn and the home movie runs out as one of the kids gets murdered. Going through the footage, Ellison finds a weird symbol painted on the wall and prints out a captured frame, then rewatches the footage while noticeably wondering what the hell he's doing. Screwing with the contrast, text is revealed that says the killings took place in St. Louis and thanks to The Google he finds that there was a triple murder in 1998 where the youngest child in the family went missing. Looks like he's discovered a pattern that has eluded law enforcement personnel in different states for almost half a century.

You know what I wouldn't do at that point? Sit in the dark listening to the attic floorboard creak above me after watching four or five families getting killed on some home movies. For fuck's sake, man, you know someone dropped off the movies and the projector before you moved in and now you're listening to that while your family is sleeping. Call. The goddamn. Police.

Or go searching for whatever's making noise with a tiny little cell phone used as a flashlight, whatever. Don't come running to me when you get disemboweled or pureed. Do make sure to have a sharp kitchen knife when you decide to go looking for whoever is making the noises, though, so that if your kids surprise you they might wind up injured or killed. To be fair, there's a cool jump scare that actually belongs in the movie here when the attic trap door closes after Ellison goes looking up there and Ethan Hawke's surprised yell and jump sound exactly right for that situation. His panic when a presumably poisonous snake underneath a box lid is revealed to him and slithers away is similarly great. That box lid has a child's drawing of several the filmed murder scenes on it, with a figure labeled "Mr. Boogie" standing next to the bodies. I guess that's the name of the Slipknot looking guy standing in the pool from the 1966 film.

When Ellison goes looking for whatever--or whoever--is making the noises in the attic he steps on some weak materials and goes plunging down through the ceiling to land in a heap on the floor. Thankfully he put the knife down before he went exploring so he didn't impale himself or anything, but whatever he had to say to his wife or the paramedics that got elided in the jump cut to him getting bandaged in the kitchen probably sounded like a heap of made-up bullshit. Ellison declines to go to the hospital for further treatment and one of the local deputies asks to see the hole in the ceiling while asking some relevant questions about the sequence of events that led Ellison to crash down and hurt himself. One would expect that Ellison thinks the deputy is teasing him but the guy is asking relevant questions and comes up with a decent alternate explanation (squirrels on the roof might have made noises that Ellison could have confused for a person moving around). But the guy isn't actually saving up details so the sheriff and the other deputies can make fun of the writer later down at the station. He's a fan, and wants a signed copy of Kentucky Blood if that's not too big a favor to ask (it is not, since Ellison likes having fans). 

Then the deputy goes one further and volunteers to help Ellison with his research for the next book (and given how little the sheriff likes having Oswalt around in his community, that's really sticking his neck out for the writer). The scene where the deputy tries to articulate this is wonderful--James Ransone plays the character as a man of average intelligence trying to make himself understood through his fan haze while talking to Ellison, and it's awesome to have a character in a horror movie that doesn't have any hidden agendas or deep secrets. He's just a guy who really liked Kentucky Blood and hopes to be thanked in the acknowledgements page of the next true-crime book that Ellison writes. Ellison is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and asks for the street address of the 1998 St. Louis family murder that he saw in one of the film reels. He doesn't know anything about the other case (the family getting burned alive in their car) but asks for details about it regardless.

After the deputy leaves, Tracy apologizes to her husband for taking out her frustration with Trevor on him (fair enough), and Ellison goes back into his office to sulk at a video interview of him from a decade ago when he was doing publicity for Kentucky Blood. Given that there was a lot of effort spent to make the found-footage movies look appropriately old and scratched up it should be no surprise that the talk show is shown on crappy degraded video with tracking problems, and that the younger version of Ellison looks like a complete tool with his suit and haircut. The interview also drops plenty of exposition about what exactly happened with Ellison's first book (it looks like he found some overlooked evidence and wound up solving an unsolved murder, which is great for bestseller potential and fantastic because there can be a measure of justice and closure for that previously unsolved cold case). Oswalt puts away the videotape in a drawer full of other tapes from that publicity tour and then goes back to trying to find connections between all the various killings.

When he goes back to the footage of the hanging to check on a hunch, Ellison sees the figure of Mr. Boogie hiding in the bushes as the family gets murdered. And yes, dear reader, I went back to the beginning of the movie to see if that guy was there all along. He was not, as far as I can tell, which is a bit of a missed opportunity from the filmmakers because I can't be the only person who was going to double-check. Either the films are being altered by some unknown force or entity or the movie isn't playing fair (though the same dude does possibly appear in the background of the family being burned alive, having gone back to check that sequence as well). There's some magic "increase the resolution of an image in a way that computers cannot actually do" manipulation when Ellison zooms in to get a bigger picture of the man (who looks sorta like a sad Juggalo the way he's always looking down and his black-and-white face paint). But if I complained about every time a movie got computers wrong I'd already be dead of a rage coronary.

Deputy So and So dug up the details for the family burned alive in their car; the crime took place in Sacramento and the youngest child in the family was abducted and never recovered. And when Ellison winds up looking at the addresses for the murders he realizes that one of the families lived in two of the crime-scene houses. That can't be a coincidence. Ellison is so focused on the implications of the pattern that he fails to notice the screen cap of Mr. Boogie turning to look at him on his laptop screen, which is completely impossible and also happening right there. But worse than that--when Ellison looks over footage from his cell phone video taken when he was looking around in the attic, he sees spectral hands clutching at his body in a couple of those frames. Like ghostly children surrounding him.

That night he hears the film projector running in his office, and goes to see which of his kids is watching the snuff movies while he's sleeping. But nobody's in there, which makes this one more impossible thing to be happening in his presence. When looking out one of his office windows, Ellison sees Mr. Boogie standing out in his yard, and goes out with a baseball bat to confront him. Again, good sir, I must protest that police involvement is a smart thing at this point. The flashlight reveals that Trevor is out there having another night terror or catatonic state or something. He takes his son back inside and goes looking for his baseball bat and flashlight, and that's when he gets surprised by a growling black dog in his yard. The dog sees several spooky ghost children standing behind Ellison and trots away. Ellison goes back inside and his wife says stopping work on the book would be a smarter move than continuing to stay in Undisclosed, which is terrible for the poor kid's state of mind. Tracy says that neither Trevor nor Ellison has been this bad before, but visions of millions of books sold and movie rights are dancing in Ellison's head so he just says everything's totally going to work out. The only thing he actually tells Tracy is that he's found something much bigger than the Kentucky Blood case, and he's practically shouting at her when he drops even that much information. He tells her about the dog, but not about any of the other stuff about multiple serial killings.

The next day Deputy So & So drops by to hand over some case files and tells Oswalt that he realizes that the murders that the writer asked him about are connected. He also says he can be very helpful and is even willing to run interference with the sheriff as part of his half of the deal. But he says that unless he's a little bit in the loop with regards to Ellison's investigation he won't be able to help nearly as much as he wants. It's another great scene. By being grounded and vulnerable James Ransone elevates every scene that he's in significantly and it's entirely due to his character not being the toughest or smartest or strongest guy in the room. He's just playing a fundamentally decent man who wants to do the right thing.

And that's exactly what Ellison needs, so he takes the deputy into his confidence, showing off his map with pins stuck in it and his frame captures from the various home movies. He's got quite a bit of evidence put together to at least show the Mr. Boogie killings are connected and mentions that some of the victims had been sedated prior to the attacks--it's at least not impossible that the Mr. Boogie figure is a sixty-to-seventy-year-old killer who murders families, abducts one of the children from them, leaves a symbol painted or drawn at the location of the crimes, and has filmed his attacks for decades. Even just pointing out the existence of this pattern would be enough to get a best-seller, I'm sure. But actually solving the case? Ellison would do extraordinarily well for himself by doing something good for the country.

Turns out that Deputy So and So is amazingly helpful, because he knows a professor who researches into the occult at "the university". That guy is used to working with the state police when people leave demon-inspired graffiti at crime scenes, and with a recommendation from the deputy he's likely to help Ellison identify what that sigil is. The deputy agrees to try and find out when a family was drowned in 1966 as one more way to assist with the case, and after he leaves Ellison fires up the projector to check out the one remaining film he hasn't seen yet. It's labeled "Lawn Work", so I'm expecting a chainsaw to show up. How about you?

Turns out to be something more appropriate to Dr. Phibes than Leatherface, though--on a rainy night, the killer takes the lawnmower out (which should have gotten noise complaints aplenty from the neighbors) and runs over the tied-up family members out in the yard. The jump scare from that film clip is done so well that I actually kind of resent it for making me flinch.

Shortly after he freaks out from seeing that murder film, Ellison gets a Skype call from Professor Jonas, who is here to tell us what's going on. And I have to point out something the movie's doing here, because it's glorious. The occult scholar in this movie has the same hair and beard as the occult scholar in the 1987 direct-to-video horror film Forever Evil. I'm sure the writer and director of this movie are familiar with it because they also mentioned Blood Diner earlier in the movie, and that's of similar vintage and obscurity. Don't take my word for it, though. Look at a couple of pictures.

Freeman Williams as Ben Magnus.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Professor Jonas.

The characters are dressed sorta similarly as well, aren't they? And there's even smoke (from Ellison's cigarette) on the left side of the frame for Jonas. I think it's an intentional nod. And that's important to me, because Freeman Williams isn't just some random dude in an old horror movie. He's also a founding member of the B Masters' Cabal thanks to his site, The Bad Movie Report, and one of the people whose reviewing style I try to emulate here at the Checkpoint. Having Freeman join me for HubrisWeen two years running is something I find tremendously validating and I nervously anticipate the day that he finds something better to do in October. Having one of the first and best B movie reviewers on the web joining the Celluloid Zeroes for this is kind of like having the the Golden Age Superman teaming up with the bounty hunters who don't get any dialogue in The Empire Strikes Back (I dibs being Bossk, because he is a SPACE LIZARD).

Okay, now that I've embarrassed Freeman with my fanboying I can get back to the movie.

Professor Jonas says that the symbol that Ellison sent him is an obscurity--it's not just a pentagram or an inverted cross that some goofball who thinks he's being all evil and spooky would draw on a wall. He even knows two of the cases where that sigil has shown up in the crime scene photographs. According to the professor, it's the symbol of an old pagan deity worshipped back in Babylonian times. It's called Bughuul, the Eater of Children. That's certainly not bad news at all. Bughuul is a creature that eats souls over time, according to the fragments of stories that survive. He's a figure that tricks children into going into his realm, where he consumes their souls over time. The rites for Bughuul worship involved blood sacrifice and eating children; however, Jonas points out that the crime scenes with the sigil on them don't really match up well with what is known about Bughuul worship. After a moment the penny drops and Jonas realizes that there's another family-murder crime scene that ties into the Bughuul-worship pattern, then asks for Ellison to tell him everything so he can provide his expertise and hopefully help catch the lunatic that's killing families and abducting children.

In the middle of the night Ellison hears the projector running again and finds it working by itself in his office. The door is open even though he locked it before he went to bed. For that matter, he unplugged the projector and put it in a box before going to sleep, so it's another impossible event that is happening anyway. The sudden appearance of a spooky ghost child that Ellison can't see but the audience can provides another jump scare (complete with musical stinger on the soundtrack) while he looks around his office. He is apparently allergic to turning on the lights as he keeps looking around and more ghost children show up to creep out the audience. Unfortunately the sequence runs long enough that the viewer wonders what the kids are actually trying to do, if anything, and the scene looks more like spooky padding than a scare that fits organically into the film (even when one of the kids winds up in Ashley's room, and the film reveals that she can perceive the ghosts while her father can't).

At this point, really, there's no excuse for Ellison not to call the police. Which he does, but only to pump the deputy for information on the family that lived in his house before they were killed. He seems to be edging up to saying the house is haunted, and the deputy is smart enough to ask what's going on with Ellison. He also laughs openly at the thought of moving into a house where a family was murdered without telling your wife, and then moves the conversation along--he's astute enough to know that Ellison wants to talk about something he saw and tries to get to it quickly. There were no reports of creepy ghost stuff going on when the previous family lived there, according to the deputy (who has yet to get a name in the screenplay). He thinks that the research is putting Ellison in a weird place mentally, and discovering all the other murders stretching back decades isn't helping anything either. He's using his inherent decency as his sword and shield while talking things through with the author but is also too honest for his own good when talking about how freaked out he'd be trying to sleep a single night in the house. James Ransone is this movie's secret weapon and MVP. He also recommends that the writer get out and clear his head because staying in the house all the time cannot be good for his mental state.

Before Ellison can take that advice we get our first clue that things are winding up for the big finish. his daughter has been painting in the house outside of her bedroom. It's a portrait of the missing girl from the previous family, sitting on a tire swing. She says the girl didn't want the picture in Ashley's room because that used to be her brother's room before he was lynched in the backyard. Which is the final piece of information that Tracy needs to figure out exactly what house they've moved into. Which means it's time for the "what the shit were you thinking" argument, and not a moment too soon. Everyone who goes through hairsplitting definitions in arguments will appreciate that Ellison says nobody died in the house because all the murders were in the backyard. They'll also appreciate that Tracy doesn't think that's any better. All the existing tensions in the marriage get a good airing out, like pus from a lanced boil. It's too bad that Tracy's barely been in the movie so far because everything she says to Ellison makes a huge amount of sense, and yet he's the protagonist so I'm afraid many viewers will take his side just because he's the main character.

That night a POV shot with a flashlight stalks Ellison while he's sleeping. He goes into his office and finds that the projector he heard isn't actually there. There's plenty of weird noises on the soundtrack and the attic ladder is down when it shouldn't be. Ellison, being a Professor of Smartitude, goes towards the creepy flickering light. There are five ghost kids in the attic that turn and look at him in unison once he peeps up there. Bughuul appears in front of him and he flips out, falling down the attic ladder. He's followed shortly by the projector and movie reels (which somehow his family doesn't hear). He takes them out into the back yard and burns everything in the barbecue grill. Which means he's just lost all the original evidence of the linked murders. When Tracy comes out to see what the hell he thinks he's doing, Ellison tells her to pack the car and wake the kids up because they are leaving as soon as possible.

Which they do, telling the kids they're going back to their original home and calling the movers to get their stuff back later. As they're leaving, Ellison is either speeding or blows through a stop sign and a sheriff's department car pulls him over. It's the sheriff, perfectly happy to write Ellison a ticket but actually concerned about whether or not the other people in Undisclosed bullied him away from his new home (he doesn't want to read about that in the forthcoming book). When Ellison says he's not going to write a new book the sheriff decides not to write him a ticket, and politely suggests no speeding until he's in another county, and someone else's hassle.

Back in the old (much bigger) house, Ellison starts a nice fire in the fireplace during a downpour and everyone gets settled back into their routine. Professor Jonas gives Oswalt a call getting back to him about Bughuul worship. There's very little to read about the deity because medieval Christians burned as many pictures of him as they could find. They thought that Bughuul lived in those pictures and could travel into the real world through them, or influence people to do awful things after they'd seen the graven images. The last ability attributed to Bughuul is even more distressing--supposedly if he was feeling strong that day the pagan god could pull people into his own pocket hell dimension through the pictures of him.

And, as we all know from our reading, film is projected at 24 frames per second. A single second of Bughuul in the pool in that home movie is two dozen apertures into the real world. And by watching the films Ellison seems to have opened a door. He had no idea that's what he was doing, but being sorry that you caused something awful doesn't make it go away. After the Skype call ends he deletes the captured footage on his laptop and doesn't take a call from the deputy (who is acutally listed as "Deputy So and So" in Ellison's phone contacts). Time for everything to be back to normal, except that in the attic there's a very familiar looking box full of movie reels and an 8mm projector. There's an envelope labeled "extended cut endings" in there, and Ellison decides that he's just got to know what that means, splicing the various film sections together and getting ready to watch the directors' cut snuff films when the deputy calls again and he decides to answer this time.

Turns out he made a horrible, horrible mistake. Every family that was killed lived in a house where a different murder took place. It's like a chain letter of dead families. The killings are all linked together that way over nearly fifty years, and if the deputy is right then the Oswalt family is on their radar now because Ellison moved away from the Pennsylvania house. Deputy So and So thinks it's just one crazy man doing all this, since he never saw any of the films and Ellison never mentioned Bughuul to him. Ellison thanks the guy and hangs up, then starts watching the first movie. After the hanging ends, he sees a girl climbing down from the tree where she cut the tree limb, then walks forward in front of the camera and blinks out of existence. Each one shows the clearly impossible happening although the shock tends to be lessened the fourth time you see something.

Ellison gets up woozily, and when he looks into his coffee cup he sees that luminous green stuff that showed up in some of the footage. And the cup was resting on a note that said "Good night, daddy" on it. The realization hits Ellison just in time for him to fall down semiconscious and foaming from the mouth. He's the only one partially awake when he sees his daughter dragging an axe into the living room where he, his wife and Trevor lie bound and gagged with duct tape. And the last thing he hears a human voice tell him is that he'll be famous again in just a short while. The axe is in one of her hands, and a Super 8 camera is in the other. Time for one last found footage segment and plenty of bright red artwork on the walls. And one last sequence where we see the ghost kids in the footage and a pointless jump scare at the very end of the film.

Man, this is another one of those movies that's good enough that I wish it had been better. It's got a great premise and some very good performances, but every Oswalt family member but Ellison goes missing for about the middle hour and ten minutes of the film. The filmmakers also blew their wad with the found-footage stuff very early, showing three sequences in a row and then waiting for a while to get to the other one. It's really too bad, because there's some very good stuff going on but it gets dragged down by the less well-considered parts. I do love the touch that Skype is the way to get in touch with occult experts now, and Bughuul is a truly great concept for a monster. But the idea of a demon that lives in its depictions is much cooler than the gangly guy in a Slipknot mask that eventually shows up. There's also a few points where narrative credibility is sacrificed for creepy effect, and I wish it hadn't been. It's still a very solid effort, but with a little more time and effort it could have been legendary.

I do hear that James Ransone plays the lead in the sequel, though, so it looks like the filmmakers knew what the best parts of this one were, and it wasn't the creepy grainy murder footage after all.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen roundtable, where B movie bloggers go through 26 movies in alphabetical order. Click on that banner to see what the other four reviewers (including the aforementioned Freeman Williams) picked for the letter S.


  1. Hell, I'm still gobsmacked I didn't spot that when I saw Sinister.

  2. Do you think it's an intentional nod to Ben Magnus? Because I sure as hell do.