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.

I know my blog is a mess. I really need to remedy the poor categorization and sloppy archives code. Too many exports and imports and re-exports from platform to platform have really done a number on the place.

You’d think that being sick and stuck in bed would afford ample time to do this work. You’d think that if you didn’t know that the cough medicine my doctor added to the pharmacological cornucopia contains a powerful antihistamine and a narcotic.

I have a flipchart page mapping out the blog maintenance, writing, and updating I need to do to bring facebook (personal page + fan page), linkdin, my blog, flickr, pinterest, twitter, and ravelry into some sort of harmonious arrangement. Fuck MySpace. They can send me all the press releases they want, I’m not signing back up for that one.

Yes, I have my own flipchart. It’s the kind that’s sort of like a pack of giganto post-it notes. It’s awesome.

A few months ago Husband realized I have my own flipchart. He was horrified. He tried to cover it with a weak, “That’s nice, Dear,” but in his eyes I could see him thinking, “I don’t even know you anymore.”

I didn’t tell him GhostCat and I hold staff meetings in the afternoons after he leaves for work. We’re going to wait until after the Spring team-building retreat to share that with him, so don’t spoil the surprise, okay?

We haven’t decided whether to invite Husband to the retreat yet. He’s not a team player sometimes.

I didn’t implement anything from the chart yet because I left the cap off the marker and the fumes spaced me out even more than I already was but I didn’t realize this was happening because I couldn’t smell the fumes. Antibiotics have wrecked (temporarily, I hope) my sense of taste and smell. The upside to this is that I can’t taste the cough medicine, which has a rather alarming color and viscosity.

I never get tired of imagining the kind of advice HP Lovecraft would have offered had he ended up as the editor of a Home & Garden-type magazine. I can think about that for hours. Currently, I can’t think about one thing and do anything else at the same time so the whole point of this post seems likely to have to wait.

There’s a great deal of public animosity toward the striking writers, the commentators sounding like so many petulant children fearing they are to be derived of their god-given right to be entertained. Media coverage of the strike can fan the flames of pop cultures image of writers, artists and other creators.

[tag]Joss Whedon[/tag] has some interesting things to say about art as work in the context of the [tag]writers’ strike[/tag].

He has two letters posted at fansite [tag]Whedonesque[/tag], the first is in the comments of a post and the second was given it’s own post. I’m pulling a lengthy bit from the second letter, but think the whole letter is worth a read:

STRIKE DRAGS ON FOR SECOND DAY! IS THIS THE END OF WRITTEN WORD?

Reporters are funny people. At least, some of the New York Times reporters are. Their story on the strike was the most dispiriting and inaccurate that I read. But it also contained one of my favorite phrases of the month.

“All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.”

Oh my God. Arty glasses and fancy scarves. That is so cute! My head is aflame with images of writers in ruffled collars, silk pantaloons and ribbons upon their buckled shoes. A towering powdered wig upon David Fury’s head, and Drew Goddard in his yellow stockings (cross-gartered, needless to say). Such popinjays, we! The entire writers’ guild as Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delicious.

Except this is exactly the problem. The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it’s what most people think even when we’re not striking. Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate. Art is fun. (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It’s an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute.

[read the whole post]

If you wish to take a look about both of his notes, the first one is here and the second is here.

At the Huffington Post [tag]Robbie Baitz[/tag] has a thoughtful dispatch from the line in New York:

The age-range this morning is wide. An elderly woman, one of the great armies of tough broads in New York, in the tradition of Bella Abzug, et al, is marching — like a peeved water bird — chanting the cry of the day, which seems to be something about “no check, no pay, no write, no…stay”??? I can’t follow the chants, and also, I must point out, the placards lack a certain style. It’s true. We writers of the WGA East are not good at cheap quick jabs, sloganeering, and whatnot. But back to the old lady. New York — smart, funny, angry New York — was built on the chicken-noodle soup and rage that these gals dole out.

There are older men here too, patient, pacing their saunter, men and women who have been here before, a couple of times, in past years. Some of the faces show the lines that are particular to a writer’s face. A combination of worry and humor, weariness and certitude that old pros carry with them. Some jackets bear the logos of TV shows or movies long forgotten, like badges of honor.

I am joined by Ron Rifkin at noon. He is on my show, “Brothers & Sisters”, and is marching in solidarity with the Writers Guild members. All of whom know him. He is greeted warmly, and he and I do a little thing for the press, talking about the issues at hand, trying to explain how many writers earn very little, and how much this battle means in terms of whether you’re gonna have a decent life as a writer or a hard-scrabble one.

So many people dislike writers, it seems. Odd. As though the job were a trick played on all the rest of the workers in America. (Now that I think of it, I can see how that opinion could be arrived at.) But still, looking around here at the March of the Schleppers at Rockefeller Plaza, it seems that for the most part, the motto of these people has been rather more like that of doctors. “First do no harm”. “Then make them laugh.” “Then make them think.” “Then have a sandwich”. Etc.

…..

You can’t earn a living as a playwright anymore. And if we lose this fight, being a TV writer is going to be harder too. So what is the value of narrative in our culture? Do the money guys value the worth of the story tellers in their marketplace enough to have an honest dialogue about paychecks and future income?

[read the whole piece]

In the reader comments at the Huffington Post there’s a lot of anti-writer bile. I always find the contempt towards writers and other creators too dispiriting to dwell upon or give much time and attention to here today, so let’s move on.

The [tag]Writers Guild of America, West[/tag] has a page set up with the latest information on the strike for writers, if you’re interested. The [tag]Writers Guild of America, East[/tag] page won’t load for me today, but contains information as well.

Whedon mentions, in the first letter, watching his dad walk the picket lines during the last big strike, in 1988. The New York Times had a decent summary of that settlement in it’s August 8, 1988 edition. (Yes, I realize it’s a bit ironic to find that the NYTimes has the best summary when Whedon’s second letter was in part a reaction to a NYTimes article – the other decent resources I have are subscription only and can’t be deep linked).

The strike-blog linked from Whedonesque is United Hollywood, which I’ve just started looking at and haven’t got an opinion on. It looks to be interesting, at the least, I’m not sure how informative it will actually be yet.

You can also follow strike news on [tag]Twitter[/tag] via writersstrike if you’re so inclined.

You may think you have more important things to do than read, but you’re wrong. And those things are certainly not nearly as interesting as Matt Rossi’s new book, which I’m going to harrass you about endlessly until you buy it. Pre-order Things That Never Were right now. Or at least click the link and check out the groovy cover. You know you want a copy.

Did you know Matt and I went to school together? We didn’t know each other then, but I do recognize him from the coffee shop. Clearly we weren’t meant to know each other then – the fate of the planet probably depended on it.

Did you know that Matt is the heir to the Silly String fortune?

Did you know that Matt created Batgrl and I in a secret lab in Rhode Island?

Did you know Matt was one of the original Bugaloos?

You didn’t know these things? You really need to order his book!