Back in 2012, Scott Derrickson directed a fairly generic horror picture called Sinister. The same year, Ciarán Foy helmed the frightening Citadel. The latter was a “character-drive vision of phobic terror,” while the former stumbled through pieces of better horror films.
The elements come together as Foy directs Sinister 2, the 2015 sequel to Derrickson’s picture. The original drew on ideas from The Ring and The Shining to float Ethan Hawke’s true crime writer into a hurricane of well-worn notions. The sequel shifts direction, plus the visuals are bolstered by Amy Vincent’s worthy cinematography as it shears through cornfields, farmhouses, eerie churches.
Things pick up with nine-year-old Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) as he’s having a nightmare. He sees ghosts when he wakes up and it turns out he lives in a secluded farmhouse with his brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan) and mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon). She’s on the run from an abusive husband (Lea Coco) and makes furniture in the old church next door.
The Deputy (James Ransone) has been researching murders involving the mysterious Bughuul, who viewers are supposed to remember from the first movie. He arrives at the farmhouse and comes across Courtney and her family. Meanwhile, Dylan is visited by ghost children who force him to watch violent home movies and encourage him to make his own. And so on.
The mythology of Sinister explained the figure of Bughuul as killing families and selecting one of the children for his own. In that outing, the children were lured into the universe despite efforts to keep them out. In this picture, the children are lured to view evil imagery and to commit murder based on their own liabilities.
The context has potential. There’s something compelling about the idea that an abused or vulnerable child would be coerced by dark forces to seek some level of vengeance on his or her family. In the case of Dylan, he is abused by his officious father to the point that he urinates at the mere sight of him.
These moments of reality give Sinister 2 the underpinning that can build real fear. Foy knows this and accomplished it well with Citadel, where there was a reason behind the tension and there was a certain degree of empathy behind the horror.
In Sinister 2, Foy is more bound by convention and that becomes tricky. But he also wisely grounds the plot in humanity, giving his characters more dimensions. In the original, Hawke’s character was tied up in writer tropes. In the sequel, the boys and their mother occasionally escape the boundaries of their far-flung escape.
Foy finds something valuable in the conflict between Dylan and Zach and he toys with it until things reach a breaking point. Dylan is more sensitive, while Zach kind of like his father. Does this make Zach more disposed to the lure of Bughuul? Are the ghost children teasing out the most vicious? Or is there a hope that the quiet, shy, delicate one is capable of extraordinary violence?
Unfortunately, Sinister 2 also bathes itself in redundant jump scares and uncooperative mythology. It spends too much time with the Deputy, who wanders around finding clues. A scene involving a ham radio and some sort of transmission from Norway almost undoes the whole thing, while his romantic overtures with Courtney are superfluous in all the worst ways.
While The Purge was controlled in its unpacking of some rather big ideas, Sinister 2 lacks the same restraint. It functions as a worthwhile domestic abuse horror picture and has plenty of character depth, but its overzealous investment in the conventions of the genre mutes the impact of its ultimate terror.