AUGUST 21, 2015
I was a pretty vocal champion of the first Sinister, and when I tallied up my favorite genre films of that year it came in behind only two others (and this was back when I saw 365+ horror movies a year, of course). One of those two films was Citadel*, so you can imagine I was pretty damn excited when the director of the latter signed on for Sinister 2, which would retain the writers of the first film. I didn't think it particularly NEEDED a sequel, but I figured the creative team and new characters (obviously) would give it enough of a spark to warrant a pass, especially in a year that's been painfully short on R-rated horror. Alas, as the saying goes: if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. The trailers didn't excite me much, but I still went in optimistic... only to leave disappointed. At best it felt like a DTV sequel (one that would have a much higher number than "2") that I'd watch at home and say it wasn't bad for a DTV sequel before forgetting that it existed, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement.
It's got a couple things in its corner, so I'll get to those first. The home movies return, and while none of them are as good as the original's "Lawn Work", there's a pretty good mix of pretty evil shit on display, including one family who is killed by the kid doing the "rat and bucket" torture we saw in 2 Fast 2 Furious. You almost get the impression the writers sat around coming up with crazy scenarios, not unlike the Saw guys coming up with the new traps. And while I originally groaned at the use of Night of the Living Dead on a TV (way overused in horror films due to its public domain status), it's the rare case of it actually making sense - the scene they're watching is of the little girl killing her mom. Sure, it's foreshadowing something we already know is gonna happen since this is a sequel to a movie where a little kid killed their parents, but for those three or four people watching this without having seen the first, it's a fun little throwaway clue.
And while I missed Ethan Hawke (and his fantastic sweater), James Ransome's Deputy So-and-So returns and takes center stage, so I was kind of charmed that this awkward, kinda goofy guy not too much unlike myself was the hero in a horror movie. When I heard he was returning as the lead I figured they'd shed him of his quirks and make him more of a traditional hero, but nope! If anything he's even more skittish, so it's kind of fun seeing that kind of character reacting to the usual horror movie nonsense (jump scares, reveals, etc). There's a scene where he has to stand up to some crooked cops, and when he actually succeeds he lets out this huge gasp, as if he was shocked it actually worked - I loved that bit. Even during the big climax, he's kind of a goon, pitifully hiding behind a desk and almost instantly getting trapped when the ghosts push it against the wall.
But his expanded role also hurts the movie in two ways. One is that they continue the "So-and-so" joke to a distracting degree. In the first he was a supporting character who only really dealt with Hawke's character, so it was a harmless, amusing little gag. But not so much here - he shows up at Shannyn Sossamon's house (she's the single mom with two boys who serves as this movie's main family) and she never asks his name, nor does her ex or the cops he brings with him when they show up later and try to get the boys back from her (it's the rare movie to present a nasty custody battle between two characters we don't really know). Like they have no idea who he is, and no one bothers to ask (even after he confronts them! Not even a rhetorical "Who the hell are you?"), which is absurd. A friend even calls him on the phone and calls him "Deputy" (even though he's no longer a deputy, having been fired for his transgressions in the first film), and while text messages from Sossamon's phone play a minor role, we only see his screen, never hers (which would almost assuredly have his name listed). I mean, Christ - was it really that important to retain this "detail" that they had to go out of their way to avoid giving him a damn name?
The other is more damaging - he's way behind the audience, even though we're supposed to be seeing these events through his eyes. An hour into the movie (more?) he visits a colleague of the Vincent D'Onofrio character from the first film (who sits this one out, he's mysteriously disappeared but left all of his research to this guy), who plays him some recordings from Norway (!) and we learn that Boogie always needs some sort of physical record - not necessarily film as we've seen so far (audio, artwork - anything works as long as it's evidence of his existence, which allows him to continue it). That's fine, but the movie then adds to the exposition dump and stops cold to inform So-and-so (and thus the audience) that Boogie... uses kids to do his deeds! You know, something we learned in the last movie and have been watching 60+ minutes of this one fully aware. The scene is shot/written/edited as if it should be just as big of a surprise to us at it was to him, and it was only at this point I realized So-and-So hadn't actually known that all along. I assumed all of his research (he's got one of those big boards, with red yarn connecting spots on a map and everything!) and the fact that he's been traveling around burning down "Boogie houses" to try to stop the cycle had informed him of the obvious link that the kids were doing it - never even crossed my mind he wouldn't have been aware of it by that point.
But at least his scenes are still entertaining in their little way, unlike the ones with Sossamon and her kids, which are tiresome and weighed down by a sub-Lifetime movie storyline about her one-note, abusive ex. There's a kernel of a good idea about Boogie's target being a dysfunctional family instead of the seemingly all-American normal ones we see in all of the home movies, but the husband's cartoonish villainy (he beats So-and-So to a pulp for no real reason, slaps one of the sons around for not eating his mashed potatoes, etc - it's about one step away from William Forsythe's stepfather asshole in Rob Zombie's Halloween) keeps it from ever being remotely interesting, because it's too simplistic and cliched to register. The original had the fine subplot of Hawke's declining career (and accompanying financial struggles), giving him (and his wife) some three-dimensional qualities you aren't always going to find in horror, but this mustache-twirling tyrant is seemingly the only thing that gives Sossamon's character a personality at all. She restores furniture, and hides a smoking habit, and... uh, that's it. If the husband hadn't found her it's possible she'd just be fixing up her old chairs and not really noticing that her sons were in some serious need of counseling.
See, the other key difference is that this time we're seeing Boogie work his "charms" on the kid, focusing on the would-be killer instead of his eventual victims. And the boys are twins, so the filmmakers get to have some fun with the idea that either one of them might be Boogie's next disciple (or, even cooler, maybe they'd fight over who got to be the chosen one). This means we get a lot more of the ghost kids that everyone hated in the first movie (that scene where Hawke walks around his house as ghost kids jump around like assholes all around him is the only part of the movie I didn't like), as they visit the more obvious kid (the quieter one) every night and make him watch another home movie. They even load the film for him! But he keeps resisting their attempts to recruit him, so finally his brother - more aggressive, like his dad - takes his place. But again, while this may be exciting to someone who hadn't seen the original (or even the trailer for this one, which focused heavily on its final reel), we know where it's headed, so watching them stretch it out, crawling to its inevitable conclusion, is far from riveting cinema. The only question is whether or not this kid will succeed - will he kill his family, or will someone stop him this time? As you might expect, waiting for the final 5 minutes for the movie to spring its only real source of suspense at us isn't really that great of an idea.
And that's the thing about the movie as a whole - there's no sense of surprise. The new details about Boogie aren't that exciting (he's... been to Norway?), the characters are all way behind the audience's knowledge of what's going on, and (spoiler of sorts) they don't really have the balls to do anything crazy. The R rating is mostly earned from the 8mm movies of people we don't know being killed and Sossamon's potty mouth, and I sincerely doubt the MPAA would have given it an R simply for being too scary like they did with The Conjuring. The jump scares aren't that effective (the best one was spoiled in the trailer) and there's no impending sense of dread like the original offered - I almost started to wish one of the boys suffered from night terrors. With the audience already likely to show up they should have used the opportunity to go even darker this time, taking the risk they can certainly afford (it's a Blumhouse movie, after all - profitability is guaranteed), but instead they went the other way - it felt tamer. Hell, they couldn't even trigger my over-reactive dad mechanism - normally over the past year I'd be bummed out/worked up with so many dead kids, but if anything I just felt bad that I brought my son to daycare early this morning so I could get to the theater and see this almost shockingly half-assed affair. I'd rather listen to the goddamn Alphabet Song for the millionth time (it seems every other toy he owns will play it) than watch a horror sequel go through the motions so soon in a would-be franchise.
What say you?
*Attack the Block was the other. No connection to Sinister 2, far as I can tell. Though I DID momentarily ponder how interesting an inner-city, apartment complex setting might be for this sort of thing.