I love the first Sinister. If you’re a fan of horror and/or a writer, I don’t know how you could not. Compared to so many of the other supernatural-themed Blumhouse movies, where the threat remains hidden or abstract, it delivered their first real potentially iconic monster in Bughuul, who masters all media like a demonic Howard Stern and commands your kids’ attention appropriately.
With the same writing team on the sequel – one of whom was the director of the first film – I thought I was in good hands. I expected at least that what worked well would be re-trodden. Unfortunately, the new one recycles almost everything except the good stuff.
Many MAJOR SPOILERS follow – if all you want to know is whether my thumb or a different digit is raised, I suspect you’ve figured that much out by now. I’m about to tell you why.
1. The Supernatural Threat Is Unrelated to the Real One.
All the best horror draws on real life fears and exaggerates them. Fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of disease, fear of nuclear testing – I trust any of you reading this can think of classic fear flicks that took these notions and ran with them in a supernatural direction.
Sinister dealt with the fear of being a workaholic, and even more specifically, one who writes professionally (if you think it got disproportionately good reviews, it’s because people who write for a living may have related more strongly on average). Take away Bughuul and all the supernatural elements, and you still have the story of a scribe (Ethan Hawke) who neglects his family in order to do his work, and puts them in danger by doing it irresponsibly. He pays for it with his life when his work turns his kid against him.
But then you look at the actual supernatural threat and it comes from the very topic our protagonist is obsessing over – a series of mysterious murders and missing kids. Unbeknownst to him, the side effect is having his children not sufficiently supervised by their parents, to the point that demonic possession claims them. In fixating over the material in hopes of solving the riddle, he makes it come back upon him, like a modern-day Greek Oracle curse.
This isn’t what happens to Shannyn Sossamon’s Courtney in part 2, who is merely fleeing an abusive husband. Which leads us into our next problem…
2. When Your Movies Depend on One Particular Scary Thing, Don’t Have Something Else Be Way Scarier.
Bughuul isn’t actually that frightening in Sinister 2. In fact, he’s a minor player in his own franchise. The real threat, to Courtney and her twin sons, is the ex, Clint (Lea Coco). We’re invited to identify primarily with the kids, knowing full well that they’re not the ones Bughuul tends to hurt; meanwhile, their father has no such reservation.
There are two ways to go with this that could work. Either make Bughuul somehow parallel the same fear that the ex represents (this could happen if being with him were in any way seductive, but it ain’t) or have Bughuul give the guy a righteous, murderous beatdown at the end so we can cheer, as when Jason Voorhees kills stupid beautiful people. Neither happens.
Meanwhile, yet another scary element from the first film gets powered down…
3. The Ghost Kids Aren’t Frightening, and Their Ultimatum Is Dumb.
The ghost kids were the real sucker punch in the original – when they first revealed themselves, I actually exclaimed an audible “Jaysus!” in the theater, my repressed Irish background having been primally drawn from me by the shock.
In Sinister 2, they first appear as normal kids, casually conversing with their next “mark,” new kid Dylan (Robert Sloan). Yes, their faces periodically revert to “rot mode” (for lack of a better term), but mostly they just seem like normal kids.
I got a chance to ask director Ciaran Foy about this choice, and here is what he said:
I think, you know, we just wanted to jump straight into it, and sort of join this story in mid-flow. I guess the expectation would be to introduce Milo for the first time to Dylan, and see what that meeting was like. But I think it was kind of an interesting choice to have it whereby he just accepts these ghost kids. This damaged and broken kid has found attention and friendship in the unlikeliest of entities…
I think this was very much designed to be a – I guess, a movie that allowed you to see a part of things that happened behind the scenes in the first movie. So presumably what happened behind the scenes in the first movie with Ethan Hawke’s daughter is what Dylan is going through. And we see how it is that these ghost kids, who act almost as the foot soldiers of Bughuul, who lure a kid into watching these kill films, and we see how the kill films have an effect this time around. It’s not just a character watching them and trying to piece it together, because the first one was very much a mystery. In this movie, it has a cumulative effect on Dylan, and almost a hypnosis begins, and this is how they bring somebody into the fold.
I grant that that feels like an interesting way to change things up, in theory. Except the way they recruit is stupid.
Here’s how it goes, roughly paraphrased: Dylan is having terrible nightmares.
Ghost kids approach him and say, “Hey, we can make those nightmares totally go away!”
Ghost kids: “Oh, you just have to watch our massive stash of snuff movies where whole families get murdered.”
Dylan: “That really seems like it would still give me nightmares.”
Ghost kids: “We promise, it really really won’t.”
Dylan: “I don’t want to watch snuff movies.”
Ghost kids: “Nightmares!”
Dylan: “Fine, just one more. Then you’ll make my nightmares go away?”
Ghost kids: “Yeah, sure.”
THE NEXT DAY….
Dylan: “You bastards! I still have terrible nightmares!”
Ghost kids: “What a coincidence! We have another snuff film.”
Dylan: “Funny how I never suspect you might be lying to me.”
Ghost kids: “We’re amused by that aspect of this whole deal too.”
Dylan: “Okay, just one more.”
Ghost kids: “PSYCH! We like your brother better anyway.”
4. Guess What Bughuul Has in Common With Quentin Tarantino.
Remember in Sinister, when the still image of Bughuul on the computer monitor suddenly turned and looked, like a GIF gone wrong?
No computers for the guy this time. He sticks to vintage film and ham radio, making him something of a format fetishist. This also makes him feel like way less of a threat, because who owns a 16mm projector any more, or wants to set one up even if they find it in a basement somewhere?
An obsessed writer researching a crime, sure. A kid who has grown up on Blu-ray, being patient enough to thread up an old movie? Not so much.
5. The Opening Is a Lie.
Sinister 2 begins with one of the snuff movies, showing a family killed in a particular way. Later it becomes apparent that it is supposed to be the family we are watching – except that they manage to escape. Were we simply shown an extremely exact copycat case where they did not? Bughuul’s kids never repeated themselves like that before.
6. The Least Interesting Character From Part 1 Is Now the Protagonist.
How uninteresting is he? He goes two whole films without anyone bothering to give him a name. Yes, actor James Ransone is still billed as “Deputy So &So,” and he’s the guy who pieces together the mystery this time around.
Remember when Ridley Scott brushed off accusations of whitewashing in regards to his Moses movie Exodus, saying that Christian Bale was more marketable than “Mohammed so and so from such and such?” Sinister 2 is perhaps a more literal vindication than he was expecting.
7. About Those Snuff Movies…
if you want to scare me with something that looks like a snuff movie, make it something I believe can happen. In theory, Foy agrees with me on that:
…whenever I was on set shooting them, it reminded me of being 15 years old, making my first little crappy shorts on camcorder. You have to remember that there is a 10 year old shooting this stuff. So the way we would go about it, we would set the scene as if it was happening for real. So for instance, the rat kill, where people are crucified to the floor of this church – we would set that up, and then talk about how we would go about shooting it. We’d almost organically find – if we were shooting this for real, and I was 10 years old, how would I shoot it?
Okay. But if you were ten years old, and let’s assume you can tie up everyone after drugging them, are we also to assume that you went out and caught a bunch of rats too, and hot coals, AND figured out how to put that all together while you were busy simply securing the victims and counting on them not to wake up before you’re done?
But the one where fake-looking alligators leap up from the water to eat the hanging family is still just silly, no matter how you backstory it.
I once wanted more Sinister. Now, I do not.