Written by: C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson
Directed by: Ciaran Foy
Starring: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, and Robert Daniel Sloan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Be careful--children at play.
Horror sequels have been a compulsive cottage industry since Universal realized its monsters stable was practically keeping its studio upright. Decades later, Blumhouse has refined a model that almost guarantees its properties will perpetuate—in any given recent year, you can’t throw a stone without it bumping against an Insidious, Paranormal Activity, or Purge film (a second Ouija is also on the way). Sinister 2 is the latest film to roll off of the Blumhouse assembly line, but it doesn’t do so without a hint of self-awareness: at its heart, this is a sequel whose villain can only endure if more movies are made about him. The old chestnut about horror icons never truly dying until their franchises dry up rings true.
In the first film, doomed novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) discovered that Babylonian demon Bughuul’s existence hinges on his ability to spread across the globe almost like an infection among households: without someone to continue the cycle, he would presumably be vanquished. Obviously, Ellison failed miserably, but his ally, Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone), has taken this logic to the extreme—when we catch up with him in this sequel, he’s spent the past few months (if not years) torching Bughuul’s previous haunts to the ground to extinguish the demon.
His latest travels bring him to rural Illinois, where beleaguered single mom Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two sons have holed up in an old farmhouse in an attempt to escape her abusive husband. Younger son Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) has not adjusted very well, however: if his nights aren’t haunted by nightmares and visions of a boogeyman in his closet, then undead kids are leading him down to the basement to show him horrific snuff reels of grisly crimes.
With much of the mystery surrounding Bughuul having been uncovered in the first film, Sinister 2 reverses the dynamic. Presumably, it reveals what must have occurred in the margins of Sinister by highlighting the demon’s seduction of the innocent. It makes for less natural frame but is sturdy enough: instead of Courtney digging super 8 footage out of her basement or exploring the sordid history of the church in her backyard, her son’s nightly visits with ghosts keep the film moving along with a different sort of intrigue. It’s no longer a question of what Bughuul is up to—it’s a question of if he’ll successfully compel Dylan to take up a camera and assume the mantle as director of his latest gruesome production. While Sinister 2 isn’t expressly concerned with the meta implications, they make for an interesting wrinkle all the same, especially as it hails from a director in Ciaran Foy who similarly takes up the mantle of predecessors (Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill return as writers and producers).
If the first Sinister was about the mysterious, preternatural power of transgressive art, then this sequel pulls the curtain back on sausage factory filmmaking. As Bughuul’s twisted brood continues to haunt Dylan and goad him into churning out his own film, it’s akin to peeking behind the scenes of a production that feels obligatory: a new film must happen or Bughuul will be upset. You begin to wonder if the demon represents Hollywood movie factors or insatiable audiences—or, maybe both. Sinister 2 is not a film that needs to happen—it’s one that’s demanded by various masters, and it’s fascinating to watch a film that feels at war with itself: the ultimate happy ending for Sinister 2 involves a world where Bughuul literally can’t make a new film. Admittedly it’s a stretch—and it’s not like the film actually follows this logic to its extreme—but it keeps Sinister 2 from dutifully rolling onto the screen stamped with a boilerplate.
Also helping the cause: Sinister 2 kind of rules. Even without its meta dimension, it’s worthy follow-up that delivers more of its predecessor’s most successful elements while refusing to simply retrace its steps. The domestic turmoil here is of a different sort and one that feels more urgent and palatable than the previous film’s. As much as I enjoy watching Ethan Hawke do anything (including playing a novelist/dope sweater enthusiast struggling to regain his relevance by any means necessary), Sossamon is a terrific, tough matriarch whose slight southern twang is an quirky, perfect little grace note. She’s such a presence that it’s a shame the film doesn’t allow her to put a boot up Bughuul’s ass herself.
Instead, her fate is predictable enough: when both the demon and her shithead ex begin to encroach, she becomes second fiddle to Ex-Deputy-So-and-So, whose further investigation leads to a few tangents (the film goes out of its way to confirm that early ham radio transmissions indicate that Bughuul once haunted Norway in the 70s, for example). The chemistry between the two is fine, and Ransone’s aloofness in the first film has escalated into a full-blown Deputy Dewey awkwardness that provides brief hints of levity in an otherwise gloomy affair.
Like its predecessor, Sinister 2 is a grim descent into inevitability: if the specter of a child-eating Babylonian deity weren’t ominous enough, the film explores the physical and psychological fallout of child abuse, meaning Bughuul would be a manifestation of figurative demons as well if the film felt compelled in any way to go that route. Mostly, it doesn’t, which is not to say Sinister 2 isn’t ambitious—it’s just that it never quite coheres thematically beyond functioning as an extension of the original, albeit one that feels slightly more invested in its characters (the tense showdowns between Courtney and her ex are as stomach-turning as Bughuul’s exploits).
It excels as a follow-up, at least, as Foy recaptures Derrickson’s oppressively atmospheric vibe and transplants it to an autumnal heartland. Wide landscape shots of cornfields basked in the glow of dying sunlight put the proceedings on the edge of Halloween, while the rustic surroundings (particularly the abandoned church) create a desolation far removed from the first film’s suburbs. Regardless of his environment, Bughuul remains an almost inexplicably effective instrument for jump scares. Sinister 2 resists the obligatory sequel temptation to demystify its villain by doubling down on his previous role, which involves looking like a lost member from Slipknot, creeping around the frames of computer monitors, and keeping watch over a brood of creepy kids who missed the cut for Children of the Corn.
And yet Sinister 2 is still an undeniably unsettling experience, particularly when Foy embraces a queasy nightmare logic with free-floating camera angles that simulate an out-of-body experience. These sequences often collide with what has become the franchise’s calling card in Bughuul’s cleverly-titled home movies, a collection that has grown to include disturbing dispatches from ill-fated fishing trips, Christmas mornings, and Sunday school sessions. Even after several years and dozens of films have diluted the impact of found footage, the Sinister series continues to tap into the skin-crawling potential of the aesthetic. Haunting, anachronistic music creaks from a phonograph, overlaying horrific images of families ensnared, powerless to combat the horrors inflicted upon them. More than a gratuitous opportunity to indulge in splatter movie theatrics, these sequences capture the helplessness foreshadowed by the deputy’s opening encounter with a priest, who insists that waving a cross and relying on the power of Christ to compel demons away will be futile.
You can’t vanquish evil, he says, adding that you can only hope to protect yourself against it—sort of like routine horror movie sequels. As Sinister 2 reveals, the best defense mechanism against the latter is investing in the immediacy of human drama and decency. A scene where alligators devour a family dangling as bait helps too, though.
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