Sinister Celluloid in the Age of Instagram – Marc Olivier

When The Exorcist hit theaters in 1973, televangelist Billy Graham was widely rumored to have said that evil resided in the very celluloid of that film.[1] Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012) derives horror from a similarly perverse faith in film stock as a vehicle for evil. Although a digital production, Sinister incorporates digitized Super 8 footage and foregrounds analog as the medium of choice for an ancient child-eating pagan deity named Bagul.[2] Under Bagul’s power, and equipped with camera, film, and tripod, children are transformed into homicidal auteurs who document their families and then murder them on Super 8 before disappearing into the demon’s archive of horror. Echoing Graham, Derrickson explains, “Evil resides in the very celluloid of these Super 8 films”—a statement that recasts the televangelist’s 1970s warning as a twenty-first century horror director’s aspiration.[3] Whether as a denunciation of a horror movie or as its premise, the notion that evil can inhabit film stems from a gothic belief that media forms that are in decline, like decrepit houses, make better dwellings for malefic spirits.

Despite its morally conservative message, Graham’s rumored reaction to The Exorcist is technologically progressive. At a time when theater owners were turning to grindhouse and exploitation movies to fill their empty seats, the televised gospel and the gospel of television formed a happy alliance. In contrast, Sinister’s retrogressive premise suggests a crisis of faith in emerging technologies. For while the film’s protagonist owns all the latest Apple products, Derrickson himself seems conflicted about the place of analog horror in a digital era. Sinister’s crisis, and perhaps that of all modern horror films that engage the current media climate, is not which side to take in a battle of new vs. old media, but rather how to cope with the transmediative détente that guarantees their mutual coexistence.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Sinister emerged from the unconscious of co-writer C. Robert Cargill, who, after viewing the analog media-centric remake The Ring (2002), dreamed that he found a film in his attic depicting the hanging of a family.[4] In Cargill’s script, true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into a house that, unbeknownst to his wife and two children, is the murder site of the family hanging that Oswalt has chosen as the subject of his next book. In the process of unpacking, the writer discovers a box of Super 8 home movies in the otherwise empty attic, and conveniently, a projector, which soon have him transforming his home office into a makeshift screening room. [figure 1] After tacking a sheet to the wall and figuring out how to thread the machine, Oswalt runs the first reel: “Family Hanging Out.” The grainy, nostalgic footage depicts a family of five picnicking in the yard, father and son throwing a football, girl playing on a tire swing that hangs from the large branch of an old tree. Suddenly, the reel cuts to footage of four of the five family members hanging, burlap sacks over their heads, from the same tree that held the tire swing.

Figure 2

Figure 2

In one reel, Oswalt has encountered two opposing extremes associated with the Super 8 medium: the first, the nostalgic home movie, and the second, the sinister snuff film.[5]  [figure 2] Derrickson predisposes the moviegoer to the horrific reading of the medium by projecting the hanging in “Family Hanging Out” in lieu of opening credits. In place of Oswalt’s linear encounter of nostalgia followed by horror, the audience’s viewing sequence is cyclical—a loop rather than a line. The difference between the protagonist’s linear view and the audience’s looped view serves not only as an effective strategy to create a horror-inflected brand of nostalgia, but it also signals a broader theme of linearity and looping in the context of horror, media, and nostalgia.

“This is a film about film,” says Derrickson.[6] Or, to be more precise: Sinister is a digital film about Super 8 analog film that gets digitized. This is a film about interaction with material film in a world where a person may never have physical contact with celluloid unless a demon leaves reels of it in their attic. Critics have questioned why a story set in the present would use such an improbable medium. After all, if you are an ancient Babylonian demon who feasts on the souls of children, it stands to reason that Snapchat, Vine, Youtube, and their ilk might serve as more efficient vehicles for disseminating evil than 1960s film stock. Movie critic Peter Howell, of the Toronto Star, blames budgetary concerns for the anachronistic media.  He writes: “Sinister is a low-budget horror film trying for old-school shocks. But the production can’t afford a pre-Internet setting.”[7] Although Howell is correct that at $3 million, the film qualifies as low-budget by Hollywood standards, his critique otherwise misses the key point that Sinister’s return-of-repressed analog media theme would not have been possible in a pre-internet setting. In fact, for better or worse, the film would not have had the same resonance in a pre-Instagram setting.

The ten-year lag between Cargill’s Ring-induced analog nightmare and Derrickson’s digital production results in a work that engages a different brand of media anxiety than the film that indirectly inspired the script. As Michael Fisch contends in his analysis of Ringu (1998) and its American remake, The Ring (2002), a delay of even a few years can vastly impact technology-driven narratives.[8] Old nightmares must adapt to new media. According to Fisch, the crucial change from Ringu to The Ring is that the newer film depicts digital media as a threat to a temporal structure inherent to analog recordings. “If in Ringu the temporality of analog media provides the haunting premise, in The Ring it is the perceived disappearance of this temporality in the anticipated obsolescence of the videotape that is horrific.”[9] Digitally extracted from its privileged indexical relation to time and reality, the analog ghost is a fish out of water. That is not to say that the supernatural is no longer possible amid what Fisch calls the “algorithmic irregularity of the digital,” but rather that twenty-first century ghosts “cannot be the same kind of ghosts that have been haunting us for over the last century.”[10] For a film that is inspired by, but also produced ten years after, The Ring the question becomes: how are representations of the supernatural adapting to the current media environment?

As visual norms and technologies change, so do the presuppositions of the viewing public. Derrickson, for example, assumes that Super 8 movies are “just inherently creepy”—a belief most likely informed by the snuff film aesthetic in which inexpensive, grainy film stock and poor production quality connote grisly authenticity. But one person’s evil celluloid might be another’s hipster nostalgia. Newsday critic Rafer Guzman faults the retro technology for being too warm and fuzzy. “[C]elluloid is such a warm, friendly old format that it seems unlikely to contain the spirit of, say, a child-eating demon. It’s like imagining Satan hiding in your cassette deck.”[11] Indeed, Sinister’s home movies are meant to evoke the warmth of Kodak moments with titles such as “Pool Party ’66,” “BBQ, ’79,” “Lawn Work, ’86,” “Sleepy Time, ’98,” and “Family Hanging Out, ’11,”; each label captures a dull archival domesticity that acquires a menacing irony as Oswalt screens each reel. Clearly, Derrickson relies on nostalgic associations to heighten the shock effect of the sudden shift in content. In that regard, nostalgia is at the heart of his strategy to evoke horror. The risk, as seen in Guzman’s critique, is that the message of the medium has the potential to remain in the “warm” mode even after the content has shifted to cold-blooded murder. The clash between friendly celluloid and creepy celluloid stems from textural signifiers (i.e. the grain and other properties of analog film stock) that are currently in a volatile state of semiotic flux, vulnerable to constant reinterpretation across media forms. The demonically uncanny specter of celluloid that haunts Derrickson’s film risks impotence in a society that fetishizes rather than fears dead media.[12]

Complicating the meaning of grain in all digital forms is the now ubiquitous faux analog aesthetic best exemplified by Instagram. Kevin Systrom, the company’s co-founder, has stated that early adopters downloaded the app not because they were looking to join a photo-based social network, but because they wanted a filter to remedy the “uninspiring” look of cell phone photos.[13] During the developmental phase of Instagram, Systrom noticed that the top ten free photography apps on the iTunes charts were “all filter apps of some kind.”[14] Systrom simply capitalized on the fact that the image-making public had already adopted a nostalgic strategy to legitimize and correct the perceived shortcomings of iPhonography. Replicated as “filters,” the noise, contrast, and chromatic properties associated with emulsions and papers served as camouflage for the noise of sensors and compression that plagued early cell phone cameras. The fetishized flaws of photography, such as vignetting and unstable pigmentation, helped to socialize snapshots within a recognizable tradition.

Since that time, the digital imitation of retro film imperfections has become so pervasive that it has met with a defiantly filter-free backlash. Increasingly, Instagram users are rejecting the digital veneer of historicity provided by filters as a superfluous affectation, much in the same way that Modernist photographers of the last century rejected the heavily manipulated and painterly photographs of the Pictorialists.[15] The hashtag “nofilter” is now routinely tacked on to millions of photos as a badge of honor, making #nofilter the 25th most popular hashtag in January 2013.[16] In short, the nostalgic strategy that socializes new media falls victim to its own success. The brush strokes and blur of a pictorialist photograph that once connected the camera to the canvas, or the faded colors and soft focus of an “Earlybird” filter that once gave digital images the cachet of a time-worn family album, lose their relevance when the disruptive technologies they help to legitimize are no longer viewed as disruptive. Formerly a sign of authenticity, the noise imported from earlier media is progressively dismissed as superfluous artifice. The implications of twenty-first-century insta-pictorialism and its #nofilter backlash bleed over into all forms of digital representation, including moving images. By the time that the mimicry of analog as a stylistic mode saturates digital forms, even the direct digitization of bona fide vintage media (such as the non-simulated Super 8 in Sinister) is subject to disdain, or at best, associations with a certain precious mannerism. Consequently, an entire horror aesthetic so heavily indebted to the grit and gristle of its analog past finds itself in danger of connoting a filter rather than a temporal reference or a physical medium.[17]

In Sinister, the use of Super 8 footage within a digital film engages the theme of “remediation,” broadly defined by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin as “the representation of one medium in another.”[18] Bolter and Grusin note that one of the goals of remediation is the rehabilitation or improvement of another medium, as indicated by its Latin root, the verb remederi—to restore to health, to heal.[19] Almost without fail, the rhetoric surrounding new media is based on reform. High definition television, for example, supposedly brings the viewer closer to reality than lower definition. The low-to-high model of new media takes part in a teleological narrative that views screens and noise as obstacles to be overcome. For the sake of clarity, I will call the low-to-high model a “linear remediation,” as opposed to Instagram’s strategy of looping new technology back through the noise of the past, which I will refer to as “nostalgic remediation.”

Figure 3

Figure 3

The linear remediation fantasy is typified by the Esper photo analysis machine in Blade Runner (1982)[figure 3], with its near infinite information retrieval from a single analog snapshot, or more recently, by the ubiquitous portrayals of computer-aided image enhancement in televised crime dramas.[20] Sinister creates tension through the competing strategies of linear and nostalgic remediation. As the film’s director, Derrickson hopes to infuse his digital horror with “inherent” creepiness by remediating analog film. His protagonist, also in search of a winning horror narrative, uses digitization as part of a linear rehabilitation of the analog footage. While viewing the reel, “Pool Party,” which depicts a family being drowned in their swimming pool, Oswalt notices a strange masked figure lurking under water.

Figure 4

Figure 4

He pauses the projector and approaches the screen to examine the presence more closely, but the heat from the bulb ignites the celluloid, and as flames burst from the machine, the image dissolves before his eyes.[21] [figure 4]In response, Oswalt turns to his laptop and googles “how to edit super 8 films.” In no time, he has recut the footage, digitized the projection by setting up a camcorder on a tripod, and opened the digital file as a window on his laptop.

The incendiary celluloid represents a technological denial of user-centered control; a fiery reminder that motion pictures are not made to be paused. The burning also foreshadows the threat to celluloid within the destructive logic of linear remediation. Oswalt’s digital camcorder, complete with its own flip-out screen, displaces his former perspective, and moves him from the position of projectionist/spectator to that of remediator and editor. Now digitized, the filmed projection takes on a        separate life as a QuickTime movie. The original is no longer necessary.

 

 

Figure 5

Figure 5

Where once he could only briefly pause the projector and approach the screen for a closer view, Oswalt now has access to QuickTime A/V controls that can adjust contrast, color, brightness, and tint. [figure 5] The move to the laptop introduces what Bolter and Grusin call “the logic of hypermediacy”—the multiplicity that characterizes the windowed world of the graphical user interface.[22] The digitized recording of his analog projection, relegated to a window within the screen of a laptop, is now subject to the software-driven editing environment that promises to remedy the technical limitations of the analog projection and to attenuate the aggression of the cinematic screen.

The screen of television, video, and film, is aggressive, or “dynamic,” according to Media theorist Lev Manovich, because it attempts “to take over, rendering nonexistent whatever is outside its frame.”[23] To move “Pool Party” from the cinematic screen to the computer screen, therefore, is to engage in a battle with the tyranny of the dynamic screen. Or, if we accept as fait accompli Manovich’s pronouncement in 2001 that the “era of the dynamic screen that began with cinema is now ending,” the scene of film digitization is in essence a battle reenactment.[24] In place of the dynamic screen, we see a “splitting into many windows” or far less frequently, a “complete takeover of the visual field in VR” in new media.[25] We cannot, however, simply declare Oswalt the victor in a master-slave media dialectic.

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

Rather, he occupies a middle ground between media forms, visually and conceptually framed between the new laptop in the foreground and the old film projector in the background.[figure 6] To his right, hangs the sheet he has repurposed as a screen, tacked between bookshelves designed to have the appearance of filmstrips (another reminder of the continuing cycle of remediation). To his left, a bulletin board collage of notes, articles, and photos provides an analog parallel to the desktop environment of his laptop. [figure 7] The proliferating media that surround Oswalt work in concert to resist simple linear remediation. Although the window-bound digitization asserts Oswalt’s control, he must now contend with the consequent multiplication of the object of horror across media.

 

Figure 7

Figure 7

The fantasy of a purely linear remediation requires a repression or destruction of the former media object (i.e. the celluloid) that Oswalt fails to achieve. Even lighter fluid and a barbecue grill, as we will see later in the film, prove no match for the persistence of old media. Instead of replacing the old with the new, he is left to grapple with transmediative simultaneity. Derrickson literally depicts the simulcast representation of remediated horror after Oswalt awakens in the middle of the night to the telltale whirring sounds and flickering lights of the projector. The writer follows the sound and light to his office where he sees the “Family Hanging Out” film projected onto the sheet on the wall. [figure 8] He turns to see his laptop playing the digital version of the film in perfect synchronization with the projector [figure 9], and then glances at the bulletin board with its printed screen grabs of the digitized projection [figures 10-11]. Accentuated by a percussive sound cue, the shot cuts back to the sheet-screen [figure 12] and then pans quickly to the identical scene simulcast on the laptop. [figure 13]

Figures 8-19

Figures 8-19

More slowly now, the camera pans a final time from one screen to the other, one remediation to the next, and then follows Oswalt as he shuts down the projection in the same order. After flipping the “off” switch on the projector, Oswalt proceeds to his laptop to stop the moving image. [figure 14] As he does so, the video zooms [figure 15] to the same still frame that is tacked to the bulletin board as an inkjet print [figure 16], once again offering a simultaneous representation of the same image across media. Oswalt advances to the bulletin board, and untacks the noise-riddled print that seems to depict a face or a masked figure peering from the bushes just outside the window. He then approaches the window, printout in hand [figure 17], and extends the image at arm’s length between himself and his view of the real bushes just outside. The camera cuts to Oswalt’s point-of-view, so that we see the printout nearly full screen, like a movie frame severed from context. [figure 18] Instinctively, we try to focus on the face, when suddenly Oswalt lowers the print and reveals the demonic face, now outside the house in the bushes exactly where its fuzzy form appeared in ink on paper. [figure 19] Despite noise and imperfections, the multiplication of the signifier has had an incantatory effect. Thus, access to the supernatural is achieved (albeit momentarily) through transmediative simultaneity and looping rather than through the complete replacement of old media.

To those familiar with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), the still image of the demonic face in the bushes is uncannily familiar. In fact, there are striking visual and thematic similarities between Sinister and Blow-Up, both highly process-driven contemplations of media wrapped in a plot about an amateur crime investigation. Each film deals with a scrutiny of images across forms, although in different temporal, technological, and generic contexts. As media theorist Garrett Stewart has remarked, Blow-Up is not simply a film about film, but rather a film about photography’s relation to film.[26] In Blow-Up, a photographer dives into ever increasing graininess (the opposite of the hi-res linear remediation fantasy) and existential uncertainty as he magnifies a series of still photos and arranges them as if piecing together frames in a film. After Thomas, the photographer, has created a proto-cinematic storyboard sequence on the wall of his studio, Antonioni further cinematizes the images by presenting them full screen in succession at a pace that evokes the movement of film without losing the frozen character of each frame.

Stewart uses the term “photogram” to refer to the discrete units that make up the illusion of continuity and movement created by film projection. That single frame that flies by faster than the eye can seize it becomes the “specular unconscious” of film apparitions.[27] Stewart’s “specular unconscious” should not be confused with Walter Benjamin’s celebration of “unconscious optics,” although the two are connected. Benjamin famously refers to photography’s power to freeze time and to reveal hidden or uncanny aspects of otherwise fluid movement.[28] In contrast, Stewart’s “specular unconscious” is what is produced when static images pass through a projector at 24 frames per second, repressing their fixed nature in order to convey movement. Benjamin’s unconscious optics seek to turn movement into a corpse-like image that one can dissect, whereas Stewart’s specular unconscious reanimates the image-corpse through endless deferral.

Both Blow-Up and Sinister construct a murder-narrative through the process of remediation. In Blow-Up, still photos are cropped, enlarged, re-photographed, and organized until they resemble cinema. In Sinister, moving film is captured digitally, analyzed frame-by-frame, and then reduced to a few stills that are sent to a home printer. In a general sense, one could say that Blow-Up leads from photography to film and Sinister from film to photography, but such oversimplification ignores the fact that a printed screen capture is not a photograph. Neither is it a photogram. More accurately, we might say that a printed screen capture is to photography what a QuickTime file is to cinema: a visually familiar replication masking a radically altered logic. In spite of its similarities to Blow-Up, Sinister’s essential conflict is not between a filmic conscious and a specular photogrammatic unconscious. In Stewart’s reading of Blow-Up, the “slippery ellipsis of presence” that obstructs Thomas’ investigation becomes a technological allegory of cinema’s fundamental ontological paradox: motion through rapidly discarded still images.[29] In linguistic terms, the photogram is the phoneme of filmic speech. Thus, Blow-Up’s preoccupation with revealing that structure is in essence a structural analysis of the language of film. Sinister represents instead a dialogue between two different languages, each with its own logic: that of film and that of computerized media. The one is not the component of the other in the way that a still image is a component of film’s illusory movement. A more nuanced reading of Sinister must account for the differences between those two languages.

The most visible distinction between film and its computerized double is the loss of the dynamic screen emphasized by Manovich and other media theorists. Anne Friedberg, for example, remarks that window is but “a subset of its screen surface: an inset screen within the screen of the computer, one of many nested on its “desktop.””[30] By nature, the computerized mediascape perpetuates a multi-windowed coexistence of variable, navigable, and scalable image and text formats that are no longer anchored by a static viewpoint. Accordingly, the desktop space negates the dynamic screen, even if its “full screen” mode is capable of impersonating it. Reduced to, or split across, “one of many” windows, the media object appears to suffer the same postmodern fate as human subjects. This pervasive but ultimately misleading narrative is summarize by media historian Jeffrey Sconce as follows:

Where there was once stable human consciousness, there are now only the ghosts of fragmented, decentered, and increasingly schizophrenic subjectivities. Where there once was “depth” and “affect,” there is now only “surface.” Where there was once “meaning,” “history,” and a solid realm of signifiers,” there is now only a haunted landscape of vacant and shifting signifiers.[31]

Sconce cautions that the “postmodern occult” tales of a soul-destroying electronic netherworld are merely the recycled and amplified views that have accompanied nearly every advance in communications technology since the nineteenth-century fantasy of a spiritual telegraph.[32] Depending on context, the prospect of an electronic realm has been alternately described as liberating or terrifying. Whatever the effects of the “postmodern occult” on the human psyche, the corollary danger of that view is the assumption that the multiplied, fractured subject corresponds to a multiplied, fractured media object.

Even if we accept that remediation splinters the human subject, we cannot assume that the same is true for non-humans. More accurate is the counter-intuitive proposition that the heterogeneity of the windowed world is superficial. That is, if we dig into the strata of Oswalt’s MacBook in Sinister, we will find that beneath the screenshots, the movie files, and the documents of its Cocao (application) layer (to use media developer terminology) there lies a unified media layer. Beneath the media layer, the core services. Beneath the core services, the core OS, until finally, we arrive at the Kernal. Within the media object’s logical framework, Oswalt’s digitization of the film reels is therefore a move away from the fractured specular unconscious that haunts film. In its remediated form, the Super 8 footage becomes part of an environment undergirded by numeric unity. Thus, even if new media divide the human subject, the effect of analog-to-digital remediation on the film itself is anything but schizophrenic.

Figure 21

Figure 20

As Oswalt’s investigation advances, windows pile up and overlap on his computer screen: drawings from the attic digitally captured on his iPhone share space with remediated tape, stills, video chats (with a professor who holds prints up to his webcam), and footage of Oswalt falling, iPhone in hand, through the weakened attic floorboards. [figure 20] The treacherously permeable attic—the architectural unconscious of the home—is the space where analog resides, and to which it returns once Oswalt has digitized it. The attic serves as a screening room where the ghosts of young children watch the demon Bagul in ritualistic silence. Oswalt discovers the retro-media-obsessed ghosts the night following the simultaneous projections in his study. He awakes, as before, to the flickering light and hum of the projector down a hallway. He first enters his office—the site of the earlier film and computer synchronous displays—and runs his hand across the empty spot where the projector once stood. He exits to the hallway and sees the attic ladder extended to the floor, its rungs animated like frames of film in a projector’s flickering light.The effect of the illuminated ladder in the darkened hallway visually conveys Oswalt’s ascent to the attic as a retrogressive draw toward a repressed, haunted medium. [figure 21]

Figure 23

Figure 21

Oswalt walks up ladder where he witnesses the ghostly attic screening. Oswalt’s intrusion into the attic projection leads to the climax of the film’s second act: a series of four jump scares that place analog film in the role of the supernatural slasher figure that refuses to die. The first of the four scares is the face of Bagul, whose sudden appearance makes Oswalt fall back down the attic ladder. The following three jump scares are of old media. With a sudden thud, the archival home movies box drops from the attic. One second later, the projector crashes to the floor.

Figure 27

Figure 22

Finally, the reels of film drop and push Oswalt into a state of utter terror that Derrickson frames to evoke Shelly Duvall’s reaction to the “Here’s Johnny” moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).[33] [figure 22]

Like Jack Torrance breaking through the door with his axe, old media burst from the ceiling with violent force. Clearly, the medium itself is as dreaded as the demon. In fact, not once does Oswalt fight the demon in the course of the film. Neither does he physically take on any human foe. Instead, he battles reels of celluloid as one might try to defeat Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees—and with equally futile results. After the climactic series of jump scares, Oswalt recovers enough to grab the film and heap it onto his backyard grill for incineration.

Figure 24

Figure 23

A close-up of the burning celluloid closes the scene, and Oswalt and family drive to their former residence assured that the worst is over.[figure 23] The viewer, of course, knows better.

The palatial old house is a suitable setting for a gothic haunting, complete with a thunderstorm and a cavernous fireplace crackling with fire. Despite his destruction of the films, Oswalt has not yet deleted any of the digital files on the desktop of his MacBook. When he opens his computer, he finds an email with three scanned images of Bagul. He immediately contacts Professor Jonas, the expert he has previously consulted via iChat, and soon his monitor is displaying the three image scans in overlapping windows, as well as a video chat window of the professor. [figure 24]

 

 

Figure 24

Figure 24

Behind the windows, we see a partial view of the QuickTime files and clippings on his desktop. “There’s been so little written on Bagul that nobody has ever bothered to scan any of this material before,” explains the professor. “You’re looking at an engraving, an old sketch from the Dark Ages, and fragments of a deteriorated fresco.” The video chat allows Derrickson to establish the mythology of his demon creation. We learn that early Christians believed the demon lived in images— gateways into his realm—and that the demon could possess the viewer, impel them to commit acts of violence, and then abduct them into the image. Children, he says, were especially vulnerable.

The quick exposition of Bagul’s mythology also lets Derrickson reintroduce, and more importantly, discard with very little ceremony or resistance, the windowed digisphere of hypermediacy. Oswalt’s deletion of all the Bagul files is uneventful. The cavernous room and the storm raging outside the physical window try in vain to heighten the drama. A series of procedural shots show Oswalt close the video window, quit Preview, select, and then trash the files—a very dull horror battle compared to the hellfire spectacle of burning celluloid. Although Bagul can inhabit any image, be it engraving, fresco, film, or computer, we have no doubt which format Derrickson’s demon prefers.

Figure 29

Figure 25

Next, follows a trip to the attic, a series of joltingly loud audio cues as Oswalt finds the box, opens the lid, and sees the reels, not only unscathed, but with envelopes of additional footage for the “extended cut endings.” Once unsure of how to thread a projector, Oswalt now assembles, splices, and edits film like a pro. [figure 25] He is no longer the empowered remediator digitizing analog film; he has returned to old school editing of film pure and simple. The demon of celluloid has already won.

Although Sinister shares similarities to Blow-Up, the ending has more in common with the bittersweet longing of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). Oswalt’s compilation of extended-cut footage might well be the infernal counterpart to Cinema Paradiso’s touching montage of redacted kissing scenes. In Tornatore’s homage to the silver screen, a world-weary film director regains his faith in the power of good old-fashioned movies with the help of film clips spliced together by a projectionist from his village. Sinister’s ending, though disturbing, is equally nostalgic. Spooling past the flickering lens from a single edited reel flow the snuff films of each homicidal child director. One by one, each child disappears in an editorial blip (not unlike the disappearance of Thomas at the end of Blow-Up), forever to remain in a world of communal analog screenings, long after their living peers have moved on from YouTube to the next big thing.

Once Oswalt has viewed the reel that he has been complicit in compiling, he too will be “edited” along with his family, by his daughter who wields an axe in one hand (another reference to The Shining) and a vintage 8mm camera in the other.

Figure 30

Figure 26

[figure 26] The violent dismemberment of her family (which is not depicted) is almost incidental to their capture on film— another form of dismemberment. Just as the axe descends to behead the father, the film cuts to the analog footage captured by the daughter for her addition to the horrific boxed set. A flash of noise from a crudely taped edit severs the scene and indicates the return of the dynamic screen with a vengeance. “House Painting” now fills the theater just as “Family Hanging Out” did at the beginning of the film. The noise of the projector and the visual noise of 8mm overtake our field of vision as we watch the daughter drag her axe down a long blood-spattered hallway.

In the ultimate act of retrogression, Derrickson grounds film in humankind’s earliest form of analog expression: cave painting. As the daughter walks down the hall, we see her gruesome artwork finger-painted in blood. Most striking among her mural depictions are the horse heads that are nearly identical to 31,000 year-old drawings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. [figure 27]

Figure 28

Figure 27

As nostalgic remediations go, a journey back to Paleolithic art is about as big a loop as one can get. In the end, there is no doubt that Bagul intends to keep his movie collection in its analog form. He abducts the girl into his netherworld, and “House Painting” takes its place alongside the other reels in the archival box, ready and waiting for the sequel.

The eternal return to Super 8 in Sinister puts transmediation in the service of haunted, nostalgic media. Celluloid becomes the center around which new and ancient forms of representation orbit. The supernatural is therefore amplified not by linearity, but through a looping process that mimics the feed of film reels through a projector. Sinister is not alone in its proposition that occult narratives, even when they engage the latest technology, are enhanced by the gothic housing of analog forms. Other current horror films, most notably, V/H/S  (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013), suggest that cycles of remediation best reflect our archeological relation to media. The need to depict the excavation of dead forms is nothing new. Finding film reels in one’s attic or VHS tapes in a basement might be the current equivalent of unearthing a supernatural force from an ancient tomb. What best characterizes the state of remediative cycles in contemporary horror is not our desire to excavate old forms, nor an intent to kill them, but rather our impulse to rebury them so we can dig them up, and in the process, find something new. Whether Sinisters celluloid seems quaint or reassuringly frightening is ultimately a matter of faith.

 

Notes:


[1] Colleen McDannell, “Catholic Horror: The Exorcist (1973),” in Catholics in the Movies,  ed. Colleen McDannell (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2008), 202. See also Warner Brothers website, which refers to the rumor as if it were fact. “True Stories,” accessed September 20, 2013. http://theexorcist.warnerbros.com/cmp/truebottom.html

[2] Also spelled “Bughuul” within the film.

[3] Sinister, directed by Scott Derrickson (2012; Santa Monica, CA” Lionsgate, 2013), DVD, audio commentary.

[4] ibid.

[5] The urban legend that 8mm snuff films were routinely produced in South America and circulated in underground networks in the U.S. was fueled by the grindhouse movie “Snuff,” which was shot in Argentina in 1971 as “Slaughter” and then rebranded and released in America in 1976 amid protest and morbid curiosity. In spite of its being revealed as pure fiction, the legend endures. See Scott Aaron Stine, “The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend,” Skeptical Inquirer vol. 23, no. 3 (May/June 1999), accessed on October 16, 2013. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/snuff_film_the_making_of_an_urban_legend/

[6] Sinister, audio commentary.

[7]Peter Howell, “Sinister review: Mr. Boogie, meet scarier Mr. Google,” accessed September 30, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2012/10/12/sinister_review_mr_boogie_meet_scarier_mr_google.html

[8] Michael Fisch, “Ringu/The Ring: Tracing the Analog Spirit in a Digital Era,” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, July 18, 2010. http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2010/07/18/ringu-the-ring-tracing-the-analog-spirit-in-a-digital-era-michael-fisch/

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Rafer Guzman, “Sinister Review: Snuff Stuff,” accessed April 3, 2013, http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/sinister-review-snuff-stuff-1.4098107

[12] The zombie romance-horror hit Warm Bodies (2013), in which a zombie’s budding romance with a living girl is intertwined with a shared love of vintage vinyl records and polaroid photos perfectly captures the current infatuation with undead media.

[13] “Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom–Foundation,” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IPigMKugJhY#!

[14] ibid.

[15] For an overview of Pictorialism, see Alison Devine Nordström, Thomas Pade, and J. Luca Ackerman, Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945 (Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre 2008)

[16] Brian Honigman, “The 100 Most Popular Hashtags on Instagram,” accessed on August 23, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-honigman/the-100-most-popular-hash_b_2463195.html

[17] The possible effects of Instagram on the “grunge” horror aesthetic, in particular, merits attention. For an analysis of noise and the tradition of horror, see Greg Hainge, Noise Matters: Towards and Ontology of Noise (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 85–112.

[18] J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, “Remediation,” Configurations 4, no. 3 (1996), 339.

[19] ibid, 350.

[20] On the Esper Machine, see Alan Trachtenberg, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Photography and Cultural Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, Collective Memory and Collective Identity (Spring, 2008), 111-132.

[21] From a technical viewpoint, the fire is extremely unlikely, Thematically, however, it triggers the impulse to remedy one medium with another.

[22] See J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), 31-44.

[23] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 96.

[24] ibid, 97.

[25] ibid, 97-98.

[26] Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 298.

[27] ibid, 1.

[28] Possibly the most quoted passage about photography by Benjamin is the following: “Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces use to an unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1986), 237.

[29] ibid, 302.

[30] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 1.

[31] Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 170–171.

[32] ibid, 187.

[33] Derrickson showed Hawke shots of Duvall in The Shining to inspire the actor’s performance.

References

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn, 217–252. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Bolter, J. David and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin, “Remediation.” Configurations 4, no. 3 (1996), 311–358.

Derrickson, Scott and C. Robert Cargill. “Commentary.” Sinister. DVD. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate, 2013.

Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

Fisch, Michael. “Ringu/The Ring: Tracing the Analog Spirit in a Digital Era.” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, July 18, 2010. http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2010/07/18/ringu-the-ring-tracing-the-analog-spirit-in-a-digital-era-michael-fisch/

Guzman, Rafer. “Sinister Review: Snuff Stuff” http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/sinister-review-snuff-stuff-1.4098107

Hainge, Greg. Noise Matters: Towards and Ontology of Noise. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Honigman, Brian. “The 100 Most Popular Hashtags on Instagram” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-honigman/the-100-most-popular-hash_b_2463195.html

Howell, Peter. “Sinister review: Mr. Boogie, meet scarier Mr. Google” http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2012/10/12/sinister_review_mr_boogie_meet_scarier_mr_google.html

Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom–Foundation

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.

McDannell, Colleen. “Catholic Horror: The Exorcist (1973),” in Catholics in the Movies, edited by Colleen McDannell, 197–225. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Nordström, Alison Devine, Thomas Pade, and J. Luca Ackerman, Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945. Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 2008.

Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Stine, Scott Aaron. “The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend,” Skeptical Inquirer vol. 23, no. 3 (May/June 1999) http://www.csicop.org/si/show/snuff_film_the_making_of_an_urban_legend/

Trachtenberg, Alan. “Through a Glass, Darkly: Photography and Cultural Memory.” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, Collective Memory and Collective Identity (Spring, 2008), 111-132.

Warner Brothers. “True Stories” http://theexorcist.warnerbros.com/cmp/truebottom.html

Filmography

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. 1982.

Blow-Up. Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. 1968.

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso). Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. 1988.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. 1973.

The Ring. Dir. Gore Verbinski. 2002.

Ringu. Dir. Hideo Nakata. 1998.

The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980.

Sinister. Dir. Scott Derrickson. 2012.

Snuff. Dir. Michael Findlay, Horatio Fredriksson, and Simon Nuchtern. 1976.

V/H/S. Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, et al. 2012.

V/H/S/2. Dir. Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, et al. 2013.

Warm Bodies. Dir. Jonathan Levine. 2012.

 

Bio: Marc Olivier is an associate professor of French Studies at Brigham Young University, where he teaches critical theory, literature, and photography. His publications include work on a variety of topics such as microscopy, entomology, photography, film, literature, and technology. His research is particularly focused on the relation between emerging technologies and nostalgia.