Sinister Lawnmower Scene

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Sinister delivered the biggest jolt in modern horror with one doozy of a jump scare.)

Director Scott Derrickson has promised that the upcoming sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be the first scary MCU movie. He’s also stated that it’ll have those gothic and horror elements that fans of the comic books love. And if you’ve been following the filmmaker’s career, you already understand that Derrickson gets horror. From his goosebump-inducing take on possession horror in The Exorcism of Emily Rose to the introduction of a brand-new boogeyman in Sinister, Derrickson has proven adept at the art of scaring audiences.

It was in the latter, which Derrickson co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill, that the director sharpened his horror craft. Unsettling imagery, foreboding atmosphere, a terrifying score for the ages, and a boogeyman made more tangible under the true crime lens. And it all built to the epic jump scare Derrickson unleashed on unsuspecting viewers.

The Setup

True crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is chasing the next big case for his new work in progress. He’s upended the lives of his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and kids Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and Ashley (Clare Foley), moving them into a new home in a new town so Ellison can research the disappearance of a girl. His family is none the wiser that their new home happens to be the site of a grisly murder connected to the missing child, and the local police aren’t thrilled. When Ellison finds a box of Super 8 home videos in the attic, he realizes the murder he’s researching might actually be the work of a serial killer still on the loose. By moving into that home, Ellison might have put his family in line as the killer’s next targets.

The Story So Far

The Oswalt family have one hard fast rule; Ellison keeps his true crime research behind the locked doors of his office so his children aren’t exposed to the grisly photos and details he uncovers. It’s a simple enough rule that becomes difficult to follow thanks to Ellison’s discovery of that box of Super 8 footage in the attic. What begins as benign family gatherings on the film reels quickly gives way to terrifying snuff films; each film’s family is murdered in gruesome fashion by the unseen person wielding the camera. The more Ellison studies the tapes, the more his family seems to become affected by it. The creepy dread bleeds out into the lives of the Oswalts.

The local Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) has made it clear that Ellison’s past work has painted police in an unsavory light, and he finds Ellison’s choice of habitation to be in poor taste. In attempting to keep his family in the dark, Ellison doesn’t have anyone else to turn to but Deputy So & So (James Ransone), an eager fan of his novels. Pouring over the footage, Ellison begins to notice strange symbols and an ominous figure in every single tape. That figure notices him, too, and begins haunting the Oswalt family with the aid of five ghoulish ghost children. The proverbial clock is ticking as he and Deputy So & So race to solve the case.

The Scene

Clocking in just past the halfway mark, at about one hour and three minutes in to the runtime, Ellison tries his hand at another Super 8 home video. The second to last Super 8 footage of the film, this one plays out differently than all the footage before. All previous home videos played out in two mirrored halves; happy, peaceful family moments are captured on film and then it seamlessly transitions to their brutal demise. In this outing, the tape shows a voyeuristic camera peeking through the front window of a home. It briefly lingers on an oblvious mom, dad, and child watching television in their living room before entering a garage to retrieve the lawnmower. The entire screen becomes pitch black, save for the singular light of the camera focused on the lawnmower, as its taken out onto the lawn in the middle of the night. The quiet becomes almost deafening as the mower rolls along, until its jarringly punctuated by piercing screams at the precise moment the mower rolls over one of the family member’s heads. Both Ellison and the viewer react viscerally to the unexpected surprise. 

A jump scare, by definition, is a technique intended to scare audiences by surprising them with an abrupt image change that typically coincides with a music stinger or loud sound. It’s a common tool in horror and often considered a basic building block of the genre. As such, it can be considered a lazy way to unnerve or get under the viewers skin. All style no substance, as it were. But a well-placed jump scare in a movie that doesn’t rely on them? That can be pure magic. That’s what makes this key scene in Sinister so effective. 

Derrickson purposely lulls the viewer into a sense of complacency before violently ripping the rug out from under them. Up until this fourth tape reveal, titled “Lawn Work ’86,” Derrickson created a reliable formula for the home videos. One part comfort, and one part horror filled with unsettling imagery set against an even more unnerving score. All made even more disconcerting with its grainy Super 8 aesthetic. Sinister has a few minor jump scares, but Derrickson was far more interested in creating a foreboding atmosphere. The further entrenched Ellison becomes in his research of this case, the more it starts to seep into his waking life. Ghostly children lurking in the background. The film’s boogeyman, Bughuul, popping up more and more in photos and video. Even Ellison’s children are affected in disturbing ways. This film is all about mounting dread.

So, the moment “Lawn Work ‘86” starts to play, it’s immediately clear something is off. Well, more off than normal. This one isn’t like the others, which sets the viewer off-kilter. When Derrickson is sure the audience is at full attention, BAM. Misdirect success, and pants-wetting achievement unlocked. Sinister contains the best jump scare in modern horror because Derrickson bided his time. It took well over half the movie to build it up. Then, he kept the viewer in the literal dark, their focus guided only by the light of the Super 8 camera, until that fateful screaming head popped up. It’s a modern horror all-timer.

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