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You see four people, bound and gagged. Thick ropes, thrown over a tree branch and tied to another branch, are looped around their necks. The recording is like one from a child’s video camera; the picture is grainy and you hear only static. All of a sudden, someone severs the branch – the rope is dragged downwards – and the people start rising, their legs flailing furiously. The recording skips ahead. Now you see four people hanging limply from the tree.
This scene is the beginning of Sinister, an American horror film that was released in 2012. It’s quite an ominous and prophetic beginning, one that raises many questions: Who are these people? Who severs the branch? Who would record such a thing? However, despite a tantalizing beginning, Sinister brings little thrill to horror movie buffs. Through its use of cliché “pop-out” scares and all-too-common plot twists, the American film frightens perhaps only horror movie novices. Rec, a Spanish horror film that came in 2007, is different.
From the beginning, it is clear Rec is made along the lines of the popular alien invasion movie Cloverfield, from the viewpoint of a character recording the action. And like Cloverfield, Rec conveys a sense of in-the-moment terror that actually translates across the television screen. The two main characters are Angela – an enthusiastic young news reporter – and Pablo, her stoic cameraman. Angela seems to be fairly new to the field of news reporting; after several stutters, she finally announces that she and Pablo will be interviewing the local firemen for a day and, if they were lucky, going with them on a rescue mission. The exposition seems innocent enough, just an average day at work for a news reporter – quite the opposite of Sinister.
After some time playing basketball at the firehouse, the firemen are called to a mission, and Angela and Pablo tag along excitedly. The apartment complex they arrive at seems normal; there are no fires, no screaming people. Huddled in the lobby are a group of policemen and most of the apartment’s tenants, including a mother with her sick daughter. They tell the firemen a chilling scream was heard from the first floor, where an old lady lived by herself.
The seemingly innocuous rescue mission quickly turns into a nightmare as the old lady, wearing just her underclothes, bites the neck of a policeman who gets close. With blood gushing everywhere, the policeman needs immediate medical attention. Ominously, while this was taking place, the doors have been barred shut from the outside, the windows monitored by snipers. A magnified voice booms from outside like the voice of a greater being: “The building has been shut off for safety reasons. Please remain inside calmly until we have cleared the situation”. The huddled group erupts in panic. What’s going on? Are we ever going to get out of here? The viewer has exactly the same questions as the characters. Through the camera, Rec injects fear steadily into the veins of its viewers. It doesn’t try to force viewers to scream through cheesy pop-out scares.
By now Angela and Pablo wish they had never come along, just as viewers may be wishing they never started watching this movie. But for both the characters and the viewers, the situation is just too intriguing to give up on. Angela commands Pablo to “Tape —-ing everything.” She wants the public to know exactly what happened in this house of horrors. The remaining group of tenants, policemen, and firemen cluster in the lobby, awaiting further instructions, when a body suddenly drops from the staircase, showering the survivors with blood. The viewer screams just as loudly as the characters at the sight of another mangled policeman, who was supposed to be guarding the old lady. Through scares like these, Rec induces a tangible, lasting layer of raw fear. These are true scares, more than mere flashes of monsters or gore that remain stamped in your mind for thirty seconds. Rec toys with your mind as a cat bats a mouse from side to side before eating it. It draws on the fear of the unknown, which can often be more terrifying than fear of the known.
Rec contains many more twists that viewers would never expect. Remember the mother with the sick girl? Turns out the girl doesn’t have tonsillitis, but instead is infected just like the old lady. She sinks her baby teeth into her mother. The flailing mother collapses and the girl scuttles away up the stairs, like a demon monkey. The health inspector soon arrives with an antidote, only to be bitten himself as the antidote proves ineffective. With their numbers dwindling, Pablo and Angela battle their way through the zombie-fied tenants to the penthouse to search for a way out. Up there, they lock out the zombie horde and discover the origin of the disease – and they also discover, literally, the mother of all zombies, a shriveled but deadly thing that has been stalking the penthouse for decades.
In these last scenes especially, the camera serves as a lifeline between the viewers and the characters. When the camera light is knocked out, the viewers feel just as blind and hapless as Pablo and Angela. With only one person able to use the infrared view on the camera, the two blindly stumble around the creepy apartment, the infrared images seeming ghostly and unreal. The darkness and sense of helplessness suffocate the viewers as much as it does Angela and Pablo. Suddenly, Pablo gets tackled and torn apart by the mother zombie, and Angela is the only one left. She scrambles away, swinging the camera wildly, and viewers get only dark glimpses of the horror that is chasing her. In the final scene, Angela trips and drops the camera. We see her, terrified yet determined, resolutely crawling towards the camera. All of a sudden, she is dragged away into the darkness. We hear one final scream. The credits roll.
In comparison to Rec, Sinister is a much less inspired movie, relying on mostly creepy images rather than true terror. The scares are more predictable, and typical horror elements pop up. A writer and his wife move into a new house with their two bratty kids, the writer hoping to make a new start in life, the wife uncertain, the kids annoyed at having to move to a strange new place. And indeed the house is not what it seems. When viewers see the backyard, they see the same tree that is in the mysterious film at the very beginning. Instantly viewers know something bad is going to happen, but the characters are happily oblivious. Yes, this chilling realization can cause viewers to bring their knees up to their faces, but sadly the chills are not continuous like they are in Rec.
Sinister alternates between long scenes of tranquil suburban life and snatches of terror. The movie can almost get boring. Ellison, the writer and the main character, finds a mysterious box of old tapes in the attic and begins watching them. Each one shows a family being murdered by some unseen person, the recorder. One family is tied to weighted beach chairs and drowned in their own pool, another family is burned in their own car in the garage, and a third family is placed in the path of an unflinching lawnmower. These tapes intrigue both the viewers and Ellison. He reads up on every murder and finds that a child of each murdered family went missing after the murder. He analyzes every tape closely and discovers a sinister face in every recording – for example, a face in the bushes behind the tree and a reflection in the pool water – as well as a symbol drawn in black ink on the wall or floor. These two findings are quite disturbing. So far, the story is unfolding nicely, slowly divulging its clues, just like peeling an orange to get at the good part.
Now the cliché elements of the movie emerge. Where does Ellison go with these questions? Of course, he finds a demonologist professor who is always available on Skype. The demonologist says the symbol belongs to a pagan Sumerian deity named Bughuul, the Eater of Children, who according to ancient drawings steals children into his realm. Knowing that the antagonist in the story is a demon takes the terror of the unknown away from the movie. Rec keeps the viewer and characters guessing. Fortunately, the demonologist does not reveal all the answers.
After hearing some strange noises from the attic, Ellison searches the attic and finds another box of tapes with the label “Extended cut.” Sipping from a cup of coffee his daughter thoughtfully made for him, Ellison watches the extended versions and discovers a shocking thing: the killers are the abducted children themselves. He deduces that they must have been possessed by Bughuul to drug their families and film their murder. Once their families are gone, Bughuul is free to take the children into his realm. Only when this realization hits does Ellison realize his coffee tastes funny. He looks down and sees a green liquid at the bottom of his cup, and he finds a note tapped to the bottom that says, “Good night, Daddy.” He passes out. When he wakes up, his whole family is tied up next to him – that is, except for his daughter. Deathly pale and wearing a demonic grin, Samantha swings a hatchet already scarlet with the blood of her mother and brother. Chunk! The screen goes black, and ominous music plays. Viewers breathe a sigh of relief, marveling at the unexpected ending. Right before the credits roll, the stereotypical, all-too-common movie scare happens: the creepy face of Bughuul pops out on the screen. This cheap trick has been used so many times that only the uninitiated would be unprepared. However, no one could be prepared for what happens in Rec.
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