In our first article about the DVD commentary by director/co-writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill on their 2012 horror movie Sinister, we shared their thoughts on writing a strong horror story and communicating their vision to actors.
Luckily for us, they also share some insightful technical tricks of the trade in this surprisingly rich commentary track, including their use of the one object that’s absolutely necessary to create a film: the camera.
Jump scares and using the camera
Derrickson openly discusses how he composes some of his shots to create a scare. Audiences have certain expectations from a horror film. They know, for example, it’s likely that at some point someone (or something) will jump out at the camera. It’s an arguably cheap scare, but even though viewers half-expect it, it’s usually effective . . . if the shot is set up properly. There is a good example of this roughly an hour and 25 minutes into Sinister.
“If you watch this, the eye focuses far away on The Ghoul, Mr. Boogie, on the far screen and that’s why this jump cut, jump scare, works . . . ,” Derrickson explains. “It’s just the technical tricks of the trade . . . . One of the ways to create a good jump scare is to get the audience to look deep into the frame and if they’re looking deep into the frame, and something pops and breaks the frame up close, it’s startling” (01:25:45).
Editing to cut to the chase
On a larger scale, it’s also important to keep the tension high throughout the whole film, and in this respect Derrickson isn’t afraid to admit that he made some mistakes while filming that he was able to fix in the editing room.
As he very bluntly explains, “We wrote an entire scene where [Ethan Hawke’s character, Ellison,] went into the kitchen, opened a box and pulled out the whiskey, and ultimately in the editing room it was just a matter of, ‘You know what? Nobody’s gonna ask where he gets the whiskey from. He’s in his own house.’ And that was the lesson. You know, sometimes you think you have to explain and go through the whole chain [of] it, and instead right here we just, quite simply, the cubes go in the glass and he pours the alcohol and that’s it. There we are” (00:16:17).
Fighting through exposition
When it comes to information that has to be given more explicitly, there is one thing that all writers and directors dread: exposition. Learning about the characters’ background too often brings a film to a grinding halt, but it’s necessary information for audiences to understand the situation. Sinister doesn’t flag while establishing the context, and for that Derrickson gives due credit to co-writer C. Robert Cargill.
Cargill crafted a confrontation between Ellison and the local sheriff which also tells the audience everything they need to know. “[Cargill] somehow knew that we were going to have to know this information about this character . . . and it seems to really work, and it doesn’t feel like exposition to me, it feels very dramatic,” Derrickson says. “It’s amazing if you’ve got good actors and you’ve got tension between them, they’re just kind of standing toe-to-toe, you know, kicking each other in the balls here, and there’s something about that that masks the fact that what you really have is one character telling the audience everything there is to know about the other character.”
“And that’s why it doesn’t feel like exposition, is you think you’re watching verbal sparring and you forget that it’s pure exposition,” adds Cargill (00:05:13).
Thankfully, Derrickson and Cargill keep the on-set anecdotes that are so common to commentary tracks to a minimum, but for once one of them is funny enough to repeat. It’s definitely a SPOILER though, so readers should be ALERT!
Those who have seen the film know that the murdered families were killed by one child from each family, and these children eventually share some scenes together. As they talked with each other between takes, Cargill says they were “comparing notes on just how cool their ghost kid is and how their ghost kids are better than the other ghost kids”, and Derrickson overheard the following exchange: “‘So how did you kill your family?’ ‘Lawnmower.’ ‘Aww, I just got to drown mine!’” (00:43:05)
Overall, I’d say both the film itself and the commentary track by Derrickson and Cargill are better than expected. The film offers some genuine scares wrapped in a relatively strong story, and the commentary is genuinely interesting and informative rather than the sadly typical sinister waste of time.
What do you think? What did you think of Sinister? Which of the murders in the film do you find most disturbing? What are some other common technical tricks horror filmmakers use to create a scare? Do you know of any other films that handle exposition well? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Sinister (2012) | Directed by Scott Derrickson | Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill | Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario | Commentary by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill