Sinister scared me witless. In honor of the Washington Post’s squirrel week, here’s my review of Sinister, which has almost nothing to do with squirrels but almost everything to do with why I’m never going into our attic ever again.

This (Hollywood) cheap horror movie riffs on found footage, snuff films, voyeurs, arrogant writers, technology, and the horrors that lurk in the suburbs. And in the attic. Horrors.

Horrors.

Here’s the official trailer for Sinister, which is creepy and spoils way more about this movie than my post does:

Ethan Hawke plays an arrogant, self-absorbed true-crime writer who uproots his family and moves into a house where, unbeknownst to his family, the subjects of his latest book died. Violently. Then he finds a mysterious box of home movies in the attic and unleashes evil upon his household.

The ad campaign and that trailer give away more about the movie than I do, so if you later feel that this post spoiled the movie for you, it’s really the film’s marketing campaign you should blame, not me.

Unless you’re one of those people who can’t derive the smallest amount of satisfaction from anything in life if it’s not shrouded entirely in complete mystery until the very second in which you view it. If that’s the case, the internet is not a good place for you to be knocking about.

Plus, you must be incredibly annoying.

I watched a woman flip out on her friends for telling her that there’s a love triangle on Lost. I witnessed this a little over a week ago. March. 2013.

Lost aired from 2004-2010. It was a TV show with more than 2 characters. Ergo, it was required by the federal court of TV and motion picture law to have a minimum of 1 love triangle per story arc. Over 6 seasons that’s a lot of complicated geometry.

Spoiler Alert Girl was really tightly wound and, evidently, humorless, which is both the reason I wanted to yell, “The plane crashes and there’s time travel and the goddamn Hobbit drowns!” and also the reason I refrained from doing so.

But I digress.

There was something about Sinister’s sound design, the forward momentum of the story, the cinematography, and a few good old-fashioned jump scares that kept my attention. We watch a lot of less-good movies, but I think my standards for (non-craptastic movies) is still pretty high. I often blog my way through the the craptastic ones. Sinister is (visually) very dark and looks great when viewed in a darkened room, so I scribbled a few notes in a notebook but otherwise paid attention. Plus, the tappity-tappity on my macbook would have been distracting, since, like I said, the sound design had some subtle, interesting elements.

I did have to pause the movie three times. The first time was fairly early on, when the writer’s wife wants to leave the house because she and their two kids are miserable and the writer makes the big annoying, “it’s our dream to be on the bestseller lists and win book awards and do the talk show circuit,” speech while his wife pleads with him to think of the family.

I’m really tired of the cliche wherein it’s noble for a family to make sacrifices for the father’s writing career. Consequently, Husband was treated to a treatise on the subject before we could resume our movie-viewing adventure. In popular culture, women who ask their families to sacrifice for their careers raise children who become serial killers. I presume, if a woman was ever portrayed as both writer and bread-winner, her kid would bring about the apocalypse.

Bad mommy. Bad. Bad. Bad.

My tirade was probably extra-cranky because I’d read this just hours before we watched the movie, “VIDA’s Count — Women and Ambition: A Discussion in Here, not out There.”

But again, I digress.

Sinister has been in our Netflix queue since it came out on bluray. At the PCA/ACA National Conference, we heard Marc Olivier present a paper, “Sinister Celluloid: The Textural Crisis of Horror in the Age of Instagram,” that intrigued us enough to finally watch the movie. (The paper’s abstract at that link may contain spoilers, so I’m not going to post any pullquotes from it here. You annoying spoiler-crazy people have been warned). Despite seeing pivotal clips during Olivier’s intriguing presentation and hearing a great deal about the plot of the movie, when we got around to watching it I still found it to be full of fun surprises and seriously creepy.

The basic premise – evil is unleashed by someone viewing evil’s celluloid leavings – isn’t original. Olivier pointed out the tribute Sinister pays to movies like Ringu and raised interesting questions about the role of outmoded technologies in horror movies – particularly when they’re used as the backbone of the story. Since I’m more likely to listen for soundtrack cliches and canned or poorly executed foley, I appreciated Olivier’s primer on this movie’s visual pre-cursers, especially how it pays homage to Blow Up. I also understand Olivier’s points about why the concept – dude watches film strip and evil wackiness ensues – has worn pretty thin.

Still, while Sinister isn’t a great movie, or probably even an especially good movie, I think it’s an effective horror movie.

While I don’t think that whole “demon uses technology” trope, especially when it involves that most self-referential of Hollywood technologies, film, has been clever for a while, the treatment in Sinister was fresher than I expected because the story wasn’t weighed down with tedious explanations for how the demon does anything.

It’s a demon.

It’s powerful.

It’s had millenia to learn how to operate a camera or make things materialize or rearrange the furniture. If there was some ridiculous Latin incantation or symbol that could destroy it, it wouldn’t be nearly as scary or powerful, would it? The Exorcist taught us important rules about hauntings and possessions, but the most important one of all may be that if we lived in a world where demons could only be exorcised by Catholics, then only Catholics would have demons.

Wait. What? Let’s just move on from that, okay?

Vincent D’Onofrio has a cameo as a professor who susses out a bit of backstory for Ethan Hawke’s demon, Bughuul. He supplies just enough information to keep the viewer from thinking too much, but not enough to slow the movie down. Excluding any elaborate mythology or physics-esque explanations about how a demon can do stuff eliminates the need to construct much internal story logic. I don’t mean to say that the filmmakers used the “Sure, why not?” method of screenwriting, just that they didn’t introduce any elements that foreshadow a tidy eleventh-hour resolution to the haunting.

The ads showed a figure painting a wall with blood, so I figure it’s safe to mention how effective the scene is where we see the walls of a house painted in blood. The ancient cave art imagery evoked by this smartly shows that this demon uses images to propel itself through time and space. The medium both is and isn’t the message for Bughuul.

While these types of movies usually speak to some sort of deep-seated culture fear of technological progress, I don’t think that’s the case with Sinister. If that’s what the filmmakers intended, I think they failed, and I think that’s for the best. The idea that Bughuul has been eating souls since humans lived in caves and will probably still be eating souls in a colony on Mars is kind of interesting, I think.

Alas, it also leaves the door open for sequels, and that may be an unfortunate path to take. It wasn’t that this movie had a neat and tidy resolution, I’m just not really sure there’s a point to a sequel – the temptation will be too great, and maybe necessary, to create mythology for Bughuul, and that might not work out so well.

That said, I thought a sequel to Paranormal Activity was a terrible idea, but the filmmakers managed to produce a second movie that complemented and interconnected with the first one in an entertaining way, so what do I know? The third movie was okay, and had some good scares, but it wasn’t as cleverly constructed as 1 and 2.

The fact remains, I thought Sinister was good scary fun and I had to turn every light in the house on at 3 a.m. to get up to pee. I never do that. I was pretty creeped out.

I’d also taken a migraine medication that contains narcotics and caffeine and barbituates before we watched the movie. So there’s that.

You might want to take that into account, actually, because it probably affected my judgment a tiny bit. Husband was creeped out, too, though, so the scariness of it may just differ by a matter of degrees.

Still. Scary movie. A little dumb, pretty fun. What more can you ask?

Actually, there’s one thing you can ask: why do they have to make the creepy “there’s something spooky skittering around in your attic scenes” sound like squirrels in the attic? It’s like a long-range evil practical joke. I just know that the next time we get a squirrel infestation, I’ll be creeped out by this movie all over again.

The previous paragraph is a summary of the second monologue I paused the movie to deliver to Husband.

We hit play again when I was done holding forth on squirrel evil. Minutes later (in the movie), the panicked writer confessed to the comic-relief Deputy Sheriff that he’d heard footsteps in the attic but no one was there. The Deputy suggested squirrels. Then the Deputy delivered a hilarious bit of deadpan dialogue about how snakes don’t have feet, but scorpions have feet, but you probably couldn’t hear their footsteps. It was pretty great.

Then I paused the movie again and informed Husband that the next time we get a squirrel infestation I’m going to do what I always do: climb up the ladder, pop the attic door open an inch, and yell into the attic. But I’d be yelling in Latin.

“Why Latin?” Husband asked, because he hasn’t learned his lesson and still asks these questions. And because no one had even mentioned Latin in Sinisterso this seemed a little left-field, even for me.

“Squirrels don’t speak Latin,” I explained to him, to assure him I’m not an idiot. “They also don’t respond to the Latin Rites of Exorcism.”

Wisely, Husband didn’t ask my why or how I might know this.

“But they also don’t speak English, so if I’m going to feel like an idiot yelling at them to leave the house, I might as well do it with some flair.”

Husband seemed to see the logic in this argument.

Then we finished watching the movie.

Then we put the bluray back in the netflix envelope and put it by the door so we could mail it back on Saturday morning.

Then we nervously laughed about the fact that Bughuul has a facebook page. Then we realized that if anyone invented the endless aspirational-wedding-obsessing-and-vintage-baby-nursery-creating-abyss that is pinterest as a way to spread its image across time and space to consume the maximal number of souls, it would be an ancient, powerful, prehistoric demon.

Then Husband quietly walked to the front door, opened it, put the Netflix envelope outside, and shut and locked the door.

Then we went to bed. With the hall light on, until Husband made me turn it off.

Home again after the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference, which was a 4 day whirlwind. Think I’m kidding about the whirlwind part? Here’s the pdf of the schedule – it’s 501 pages long.

(The conference is actually going on until 9:45 tonight but we attended 3 panels between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. and then our brains melted. Well, I can’t speak for Husband, but I can assure you mine did. While I’m writing this, I’m watching Project Runway and I’m having trouble following the plot. Yikes).

My conference paper on the TV show Supernatural was well-received and everyone else on the panel was fascinating so I was in great company:

horror (text, media, culture): television and New Media horror

“Translating tradition: domesticating seasonal horror through television.”
Derek Johnston (panel chair)

“Beyond salt and fire: the agency of human remains in the Supernatural Universe.”
Rebecca Stone Gordon

“Control is Being taken away from You”, Marble hornets and transmedia horror.
Ralph Beliveau and Amanda Kehrberg

I should probably edit the draft of my first TED DeExtinction post so I can get that online tomorrow. I intended to post about that last week and so it concludes with the delusional statement that I’d blog from the PCAACA conference. We can see how well that worked out.