Sinister of 2012 wasn’t a truly great horror movie, but it was a damn effective one. Part of that came from its overall sense of mystery and dread as true crime writer Ethan Hawke investigated the mass murder that took place in the house he just moved his family into, and part of it was also a product of the unsettling home movies – chronicling a series of such massacres – that formed the core of Hawke’s increasingly disturbing research. It was only toward the end, with the mystery revealed and the malevolent force at work brought to light, that Sinister began to run out of steam.
So naturally, Sinister 2 suffers from the problem that affects most horror sequels: once the unknown is known, and the horror revealed, there is pretty much nowhere to go. The filmmakers involved in such endeavors usually either attempt to expand the mythology or up the stakes in terms of unpleasantness.
In the case of Sinister 2, they try to do both. The central lore – that the ancient demon known as Bughuul claims the souls of children through their own artistic expression, i.e. drawings or through home movies – was kind of confusing already but has now become even more knotty. Similarly, the home videos get increasingly more sadistic while also simultaneously ending up more repetitive too. They’re now so elaborate that one is forced to wonder if Bughuul has a full-time production designer, editor, crew, and cinematographer on his payroll.
With no mystery to speak of, Sinister 2 turns into a game of cat and mouse. The narrative weight falls on the first movie’s sole survivor, Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone), who was essentially comic relief in the original. Here Ransone plays him as an awkward combination of doofus and haunted hero, but it’s not necessarily his fault since the character is not well developed enough (he doesn’t even have a name, for Chrissakes) to carry the story. The emotional burden of the story is strapped to the back of Shannyn Sossamon (Wayward Pines) as Courtney Collins, a young mother and furniture restorer who has fled to – you guessed it – an isolated house in rural Illinois with her two sons to evade her abusive estranged husband (Lea Coco).
So-and-So has deduced that the house is the next spot where Bughuul will turn up and sure enough, the “ghost kids” that follow the demon around like a spooky Mickey Mouse Club are already there with a new box of movies to show Courtney’s son Dylan (Robert Sloan). The scenes of Hawke watching the deadly movies in the first film at least had a narrative thrust as he was delving further and further into his research; here, in some of this film’s laziest sequences, Dylan just clumps down the cellar stairs each night and puts up a token protest before the ghosts unspool the next movie and pass the protoplasmic popcorn around.
Aside from one short scene where Courtney and So-and-So share a late-night drink on the porch – which starts nicely but ends with a half-baked kiss and some cringeworthy dialogue from Sossamon – this mother is a bland character defined only by the danger she is in. She doesn’t appear to have any real response to the fact that the abandoned church behind the house, where she has set up her business, is the site of a mass slaughter, and she does nothing to drive the narrative herself except react and scream. Between her and the deputy, there’s not enough engagement with the characters, and Sinister 2 simply becomes an exercise in getting from one telegraphed plot point to the next.
Director Ciaran Foy (The Citadel), taking over from Scott Derrickson (who still wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill), has a good enough eye and manages to wring a few chills out of some sequences. But since we mostly know where this is all going, he cannot replicate the overall unease that made the first film so successful despite its own plot holes. And the more we see of Bughuul, the more we wonder why this millennia-old Babylonian deity is always seen wearing a black suit and white shirt that are right off the rack from Sears.
But that’s when you know that the film isn’t working: already basically illogical, horror movies at their best convey the sensation of being awake in the middle of a nightmare. When the film fails to capture that experience, any weaknesses in the premise, characters, storyline, or even the look of the picture become magnified. It’s kind of ironic that Bughuul’s victims lose their lives and souls through celluloid since there’s not a lot of either in Sinister 2. The movie may not give you that nightmare experience, but it may lull you to sleep.
Sinister 2 is out in theaters Friday, Aug. 21.