The rules have changed. Didn’t you get the memo?
Early 2012 saw the release of The Cabin in the Woods, an exemplary analysis of modern horror films where its creators, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, exposed the popular genre’s contemporary conventions. This genre-changing film has had a lasting effect on mainstream audiences’ reception of horrors; they now expect innovation and a higher standard – and this is the undoing of Scott Derrickson’s Sinister.
The film follows a struggling true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt who, in search of inspiration for the follow-up to his best-selling novel, moves his family to a new house where, unbeknown to them, a horrific crime took place. Upon watching a cache of 8mm snuff films he discovered in the house Ellison notices a demonic figure that suggests the murder he is researching could be the work of a serial killer whose crimes date back to the sixties.
After his debut feature The Exorcism of Emily Rose (his remake of the 1951 classic sci-fi The Day The Earth Stood Still is best forgotten) Derrickson is becoming an experienced filmmaker and certainly no stranger to the horror genre. Despite initial fears of another done-to-death horror film Sinister gets off to an impressive start – there’s an inviting concept, interesting characters, an impressive Ethan Hawke and an ill-boding atmosphere. Within the first act the director utilises traditional horror techniques effectively, particularly dark, tightly framed sequences as Ellison explores the house, venturing into audiences no-go places; the attic, basement and garden.
Disappointingly, Derrickson soon relies on typical genre conventions. Before too long the carefully constructed creepiness is forgotten and the signature modern horror jump scares come thick and fast, but with little effect. The narrative, already heavily reliant on a suspension of disbelief, but as the director tactlessly plunges further into fantasy it becomes unmanageable. In a desperate attempt at keeping the audience invested Derrickson clings to increasingly ludicrous plot developments and tops it off with a lifeless conclusion.
The potential was there for Derrickson to make an interesting modern horror, and though he initially teases his audience with notions of it being a creative addition, his disappointing film becomes the very subject that The Cabin in the Woods aptly parodied and mainstream horror audiences should no longer tolerate.