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How Internet Art Inspired the Monster in Ethan Hawke's Sinister

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The new horror movie Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as a true crime writer, who moves his family into a house where a grisly murder took place. And soon enough, Hawke's character is discovering an ultra-weird monster seems to be behind everything. But before that monster was terrorizing audiences on the big screen, it was just someone's horror art on the Internet.

Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill discovered the monster amidst a sea of Flickr "horror" photography — and they snatched it up, and turned it into a Hollywood villain. Derrickson and Cargill told us how it all went down, in our exclusive interview. Spoilers ahead...

What's pretty exciting about Sinister is that it's a new idea. A new villain, a new creature — the Pagan god Bagul. Where did this demon's look come from? Where did you pull inspiration from?


C. Robert Cargill: We had a long discussion about what to make the nature of Bagul. We decided not make him a demon, but to make him a Pagan deity. Something outside of specific religions. To create something that felt familiar, but you couldn't pinpoint as a direct origin. I spent about a week, huddled in my office, reading through texts on demonology and folklore and the like. And then taking those threads and weaving them into something new. I'll let Scott talk about the look, because he's at the very core of how the look of "Mr. Boogie" came about. It started out essentially (when I pitched the idea) what I said was that he was a messed up Willy Wonka — and he took that idea, and ran with it.

Scott Derrickson: I spent a lot of time online looking for images for inspiration. I went to Flickr and typed in the word "horror" and got hundreds of thousands of horror photography images. I looked through tens of thousands of pictures and created a folder of images that I thought would be good jumping-off points for Bagul. I whittled it down to maybe 15, and sent those to Cargill, and he picked out one that he really liked. And the more we looked at that image, the more we liked it. It suddenly occurred to me, what if "it" was exactly this. So we bought the picture for a couple hundred dollars. And gave the guy a concept design credit, and that's the look of Bagul/Mr. Boogie.


Why do so many villains have such prominent noses or chins? What is it about wacky facial features that inspires fear?

Derrickson: What everyone is always afraid of is the unknown, or the unfamiliar. You got to have a look for a character that is mysterious and menacing, and doesn't quite look like what we've seen before. Even going back to the slasher movies, the killer with a mask, it's just the unknown fear of what's under the mask. In this case, the ghoul's face is a mask. It also connects to Black Metal art, it's a little connected to that. Audiences are afraid of something that just looks unfamiliar. But also it's got to be a little alluring as well, it can't just be repulsive. It has to have a strange allure to it as well.


Cargill: I was talking to Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton last week, from The Collection. And they were asked several times why they don't reveal the killer's face over the course of the film. And they brought up the movie Copycat from the 90s, which is a great example of why you don't. Because here you have this serial killer who is really scary, and that movie is really scary up until the point when they reveal who the killer is. And it's just this little guy who looks like you would run into him at the yacht club. And all of a sudden the movie's not scary anymore. It just becomes silly. It's just this mousy blonde guy who is supposed to be scary, but it just doesn't work.

Why was it important that this creature kill the families in such elaborate ways?


Derrickson: The idea is that Bagul resides within art. He's in the images. I don't want to give away too many spoilers, but the idea is basically that he inspires the creation of this art in which he himself then resides. And so the films themselves have to be scary films. Just as the artwork that is shown from the past is scary artwork, and reflect the nature of the deaths that occur because of him. It's what he does, it's his nature.


There seems to be a message against the obsession with fame and notoriety, in Sinister. Bagul gets power from people watching him, so he needs an audience. And so does Ethan Hawke's character [who is a once successful crime novelist but is now desperate to regain his lost fame]. Why was that so important?

Derrickson: For me that was why I wanted to make the movie. Like all horror films, it's about fear. Things that scare the audience, things that scare the main character. But what I think is fascinating about Bagul, is that it's centered around notoriety. And this creation of dark, lurid material that people actually look at an observe. What I love most is that Ethan Hawke is getting scared of watching these films, and as the paranormal seeps into the movie he's getting scared of these inexplicable things happening. But he stays in the house because he has an even deeper fear of losing his status. It's really a film about a guy who is trying to recover his lost fame and glory. And his fear of not recovering that riches and fame is the driving fear in the movie.


There is a large lack of jump scares in this film, unlike a lot of new horror movies such as Indisidious (which we also enjoyed). Was that intentional? Why did you decide to make it a slower burn scare movie?

Cargill: For me, the slower burn is a deeper and more effective scare. I like a good jump scare, and there are a few in the movie. But I only like those kinds of scares when they're really earned. I don't like false scares. I think the experience of getting an audience a little bit tense and shocking them with a jump scare, and then moving on it can be cheap and easy. The harder thing is to get them unnerved and disturbed in a growing way. That starts off easy and increases all the way through the picture. That was the idea with the Bagul in this movie.


Derrickson: At the end of the day, a "jump scare" scares the audience for the moment. Slow burn horror ideas scare people forever. What was so scary about Nightmare on Elm Street, when it came out, wasn't that this guy was killing people and watching Johnny Depp get sucked into a mattress and the explode into a fountain of blood. What was scary was that there was a monster that could get you in your sleep, and that you had to fall asleep sometime. And that's when you were vulnerable. People carried it with them for years. That movie scarred me as a child. Having a Freddy Krueger nightmare it was the most awful thing in the world. That's part of what we wanted to do here. We wanted to make something that would scare people in the long term, not just in the moment.