Late into Sinister 2, the film’s requisite adorable kid tells his ghostly tormentors that he doesn’t want to watch any more scary movies, to which they scoff and play their horrible snuff films anyway. Little moments like this are littered throughout the film, and at a certain point the whole thing begins to feel like an indictment of the entire horror cycle. We watch horror movies for the sick thrill of seeing people get killed in the most creative ways possible, we tell ourselves we won’t watch another, then every year the inevitable sequel comes out and we keep coming back. Never has a horror film so vehemently lobbied against its own existence, but here it is: Sinister 2 is the anti-horror sequel horror sequel. And honestly, that’s kind of cool. It would have been cooler, recommendable even, if it weren’t so limp and uninterested in itself.
After the events of the first Sinister, in which ghost children tormented Ethan Hawke and his family with a haunted box of snuff films, Ex-Deputy So & So (James Ransome) returns to follow the trail of murders committed in the name of Bughuul, a demon dressed like a Slipknot reject who feeds on “aesthetic observances of violence.” So & So’s investigation brings him to a deserted farmhouse, where another gruesome murder has recently taken place. There he meets Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two boys, Dylan and Zach (brothers Robert Daniel and Dartanian Sloan), who are hiding out from Courtney’s cartoonishly abusive husband, Clint (Lea Coco). Of course, it’s not long before the ghost children resurface and lead Dylan to the box of snuff films stored in the basement.
The sequel follows the same general structure as the original, with a few tweaks that seem designed more to justify a sequel than to keep viewers on their toes. Bringing back Ex-Deputy So & So (actual character name) and making him the protagonist is a nice touch, allowing the sequel to at least maintain some sense of continuity. It also helps move the plot along, as it doesn’t have to slow down and explain everything to a character who already knows what’s up. (That doesn’t stop Professor Exposition’s understudy from delivering a third-act infodump, but whatever.) Ransome is actually the best thing about the film; So & So has just enough backbone to become a decent hero when the film calls for it, but he’s still very much the hapless dope we met in the original.
The other big tweak is a greater emphasis on the children. This opens up a subplot in which the ghost children constantly taunt Dylan and tempt him to watch the snuff films they’ve made. This time around they come across like pint-sized Cenobites, each kid offering up their own murderous short film to Bughuul, Sinister’s de facto Pinhead. The lead ghost kid, Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann, which is a much better name for a ghost kid than Milo), presents his film by proclaiming, “It’s my favorite! I made it myself!” The murder Milo stages is so hokey and over-the-top that it feels like a point of no return. If Sinister was hoping to become the next horror series known for its elaborate kills, it’s got its work cut out for it, because Milo’s snuff film is pretty damn ridiculous. That’s really saying something in a film where a little kid hangs his family upside down all by himself over a swamp filled with alligators.
The story revolving around Courtney and her husband would make a decent foil for the supernatural snuff film angle, but is so lazily developed that it offers virtually no counterweight. “Domestic violence begets more violence” is all well and good, but the moment Clint is introduced, he might as well have the words “cannon fodder” tattooed on his forehead. I hate to say this about anyone, even a shitty character in a horror movie, but Clint isn’t just expendable; he’s the most justifiably murderable character I’ve seen all year. From scene one, he’s like a big dumb, entitled ape threatening his wife with court orders and yelling that his family owns every cop in a five-county radius. Later, he literally shoves food in his kid’s face and you start rooting for the ghosts to just squash this cockroach already. Whatever point we’re meant to glean from Clint’s role in this story is lost beneath so much empty, aggressive posturing.
Sinister 2’s less successful moments (read: most of them) feel intentional enough that I believe co-writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (who directed and co-wrote the original, respectively) were out to nip this series in the bud. Kill it now, before it has the chance to bloom into a widely reviled, multi-part franchise. What might well have been a fascinating takedown of horror sequels becomes a fumbling mess in the hands of director Ciarán Foy. Gone is Derrickson’s evocative use of shadows, negative space and atonal noise. The original worked best as an exercise in sustaining haunting moods. In its place, though, are an abundance of obvious soundstages and cornfield scenes that look like they were lit by an adjacent high school baseball game. If it was truly Derrickson’s intention to sabotage this series before it became terrible, let’s hope he succeeded, because Sinister 2 is bad enough.
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