Found Footage Done Right: The Story Behind "Sinister," A Bleak, Truly Disturbing, First-Class Horror Movie

Found Footage Done Right: The Story Behind "Sinister," A Bleak, Truly Disturbing, First-Class Horror Movie

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

In late 2002, aspiring screenwriter C. Robert Cargill did what millions of other scary movie fans did around that time: He ventured to the nearest multiplex to catch a screening of The Ring, director Gore Verbinski's excellent, influential remake of Hideo Nakata's 1998 Japanese cult favorite Ringu. It wasn't an atypical way to spend an evening for someone who'd go on to spend the better part of his professional career writing film reviews for the popular blog Ain't It Cool News, under the moniker of "Massawyrm."

To say that The Ring left its mark would be a profound understatement. Once he got back home that night, Cargill decided to take a nap, and it was in that brief period of slumber that he experienced a real whopper of nightmare. In the terrifying dream, Cargill walks up into the attic of his home and sees a strange box filled with Super-8 film reels; loading up the projector that also happens to be in the attic, he sits and watches in horror as the reel shows the image of an entire family being hung from a tree, all at the same time.

Even long after he woke up, Cargill couldn't shake the vivid image of the multiple homicide. "That stuck with me," he says. "That haunted me for awhile, and I figured, there's a story there. I thought, If I find the right story, that could be a pretty cool movie. And I think we may have made one."

Yet another understatement. Opening in theaters nationwide tomorrow, Sinister, the byproduct of Cargill's now-10-year-old nightmare, is one of the most impressive mainstream genre flicks to come around in years. Pitch black in tone, it's that rare American-made horror picture that sticks to its uncompromisingly bleak premise despite the fact that there's an A-list movie star—in this case, Ethan Hawke—at its center.

A surface-level comparison could be made to last year's breakout hit Insidious, from its ominous one-word title to the presence of producer Jason Blum, who's gone from backing the original Paranormal Activity to amassing a genre movie empire that also includes next week's sequel Paranormal Activity 4. But here's the thing about those Sinister/Insidious parallels: Believe it or not, the former is much more disturbing, a claim that should no doubt intrigue those who've lost sleep over director James Wan's 2011 trip into "The Further."

In Sinister, which adheres closely to writer Cargill's initial vision, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a famous true crime writer who's been riding high off the success of his debut book, Kentucky Blood, in which his reporting exposed cracks in the police department's murder investigation; as a result, cops the world over don't like him very much.

Nor does Ellison love himself a great deal, having been unable to repeat Kentucky Blood's impact with any subsequent work of non-fiction. Hoping to find that next great real-life tragedy to investigate (and exploit?), Ellison moves his family—wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), 12-year-old son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and even younger daughter Ashley (Clare Foley)—to a quaint suburban home in Long Island without revealing to his wife that a family of four was simultaneously hung from a tree in the backyard and the youngest daughter went missing. Once the Oswalts are settled into their new digs, Ellison takes a look in the attic, where he finds, that's right, a box of Super-8 reels, labeled with such pleasant titles as "BBQ, '79," "Pool Party, '86" and "Sleepy Time, '98."

Well, pleasant until he actually watches them.

From White Russians to an Oscar Nominee: How Sinister Came to Fruition

Just how deeply did the nightmare of a family being hung from a large tree affect Cargill? Dedicating himself to sharing the horrific sight with moviegoers worldwide, he kept it alive in his thoughts for nine long, mentally strenuous years. "It took me a long time to find the right story," he says. "It was something I played around with every so often when I'd be at work and had nothing to do. I would start running through all the permutations of how the story's been told before, where it can go wrong, and it took me all of those years of it being this hobby of putting it together before it became what you see on screen."

In January 2011, a casual meeting amidst slot machines, gambling tables, and complimentary drinks gave the idea its real creative juice. Through his exploits as a movie critic, Cargill's Twitter feed is full of filmmakers who've either enjoyed or detested his critiques of their movies. One director with whom Cargill maintained a friendly Twitter discourse was Scott Derrickson, who started his career off with the well-reviewed, genuinely underrated 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose and followed that up with, by most accounts, a sophomore disappointment in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 2008 sci-fi remake starring Keanu Reeves.

Having been off a film set for three years, Derrickson was looking for another passion project similar to The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Taking a professional break to meet up with his brother in Las Vegas for some poker-playing, Derrickson saw on Twitter that Cargill was also spending time in Sin City, so he reached out to set up some time for the two of them to chop it up inside the Mandalay Bay casino. There, over a series of stiff White Russians, Cargill pitched a movie called Found Footage, an early incarnation of what would become Sinister. Derrickson was immediately excited. "The movie that you see was that pitch," says the director. "The element of Ellison being a true crime writer was there, some of the Super-8 films were in that pitch. It was amazing how much of a story it already was."

Tags: sinister, ethan-hawke, scott-derrickson, jason-blum, c-robert-cargill, found-footage
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