The Space Between Terrible and Good

Sinister 2 is currently sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst reviewed horror films of 2015. The critical consensus is that it was ‘slapdash’ and not very scary. I agree that Sinister 2's story is somewhat of a mess, but it has plenty of good scares — of both the psychological and jump varieties — and it is a mistake to lump it together with the rest of the 2015 horror genre flops.

The Good

Although Sinister 2 is a sequel (insert hyperbolic criticism of sequelitis here), it actually takes the story and the ideas from its predecessor and extends them in a mostly logical way. For all the praise I’ve given the Paranormal Activity franchise in other places, it is mostly variations on a theme. Like the Saw franchise, they are formulaic exercises in set ups and pay offs. Sinister 2 does not escape this. Yes, there are 8mm snuff films. Yes, there is a twist-er-roo in who is the murderer. And yes, Bughuul pops out in the last frame to tuck you in and give you a good night jump scare. But Sinister 2 takes those formulaic elements and adds to them and even subverts them.

While most of the plot of Sinister was spent trying to unravel the mystery of the disappearing children — spoilers: they did it the whole time — Sinister 2 dispenses with the misdirection immediately and assumes you know the rules of the game. The spectral child thralls of Bughuul bedevil the mild-mannered Dylan and we follow him as they explain the initiation process that we must presume Ellison Oswalt’s little girl Ashley went through in the previous film. Dylan must watch the ‘offerings’ of the previous children in the murderous chain letter after which he will then be tasked with adding his own stanza.

Some reviews dismiss this focus on process as uninteresting and claim it makes the creepy children less scary as they are bumped up from jump scare fodder to actual players. But that assumes that little children in horror movies are only good for scares. Milo, the unofficial leader of the Bughuul cultists, serves an important role as the tempter of Dylan and delivers much of the new mythology as well as any child actor can. We see that Dylan is indeed tempted as he is abused by his brother Zach, who can also see the children and is upset that they didn’t choose him. The movie smartly pulls the rug out from under us when Dylan refuses Milo. Milo reveals that their real target was Zach all along and the escalating antagonism was a ploy to anger Zach enough to want to kill his family.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not praise James Ransone as Ex-Deputy So & So (You might think that I was making a clever joke at the expense of Ransone’s character, but, alas…). Elevating the comic relief character from Sinister to leading man could easily have gone terribly. Thankfully, the writers, Cargill and Derricksin, recognize that So & So is basically a Samwell Tarly character. He is not effortlessly brave and daring in the face of danger and watching him struggle with threats both real and supernatural is a treat. So & So and Shannyn Sossamon’s character, Courtney, have a delightful and believable interaction with one another as two broken people just trying to make it in a world that’s out to get them. And, let’s face it, his inherent incompetence is the only thing that makes the ending credible.

The Bad

Sinister 2 hits a lot of common horror movie cliches:

  • Too many jump scares.
  • A tacked on, jump scare ending — Jason Blum seems to be a fan of these.
  • Iffy child acting, although mostly from Dartanian Sloan. His brother, Robert Daniel, is the emotional core of the movie as Dylan and generally pulls off a complicated performance.
  • A trailer that spoils everything (no surprises here).

Most importantly, Sinister 2 is a bit of a mess of a story. It is trying to move So & So forward as the new investigative force, introduce a new family with a lot of emotional backstory, add on to the Bughuul mythology and explore the generational nature of childhood abuse. It’s all too much for a ninety-minute horror flick and it suffers from a lack of focus. Despite these problems, though, it still remains a largely enjoyable ninety minutes, carried mostly by the strength of the performances.

The Bughuuly

I found the underlying themes of abuse and its poisonous effects fairly ham-handed. The first two acts build up to a fever pitch as Sossamon’s Courtney desperately tries to evade the machinations of the mustache-twirling Clint only to lead to a single dinner table scene where Clint shoves mashed potatoes in Dylan’s face. The very next scene, he is immolated on a crucifix by Zach in the big finale.

Speaking of the ‘big finale’, it lasts all of forty seconds before So & So arrives to save the day. And boy does he ever — by driving his SUV straight into Zach. Movie over, right? How could a nine-year-old child survive being struck by a vehicle? Well, that’s unclear, but not only does he get up, he then grabs a sickle and chases So & So, Courtney and Dylan back into the house where they play hide and seek with the ghosts until So & So finally breaks Zach’s Super8 camera, condemning him to death and his sibling to any potential sequels.

Sinister 2 also earns its R rating not just through bloody violence but through cursing. In what is one of its most troubling scenes, the nine-year-old Zach tells Dylan, whom he has just previously given a bloody nose, to ‘fuck off’ and calls his mom a ‘cunt’. Although somewhat reminiscent of the obscenities uttered by Regan in The Exorcist, this was totally unnecessary and served only to cause members of my theater audience to gasp — not in horror but disgust.

There is also an incredibly large number of dropped plots and general puzzlements and oddities throughout Sinister 2. To wit:

  • If So & So burnt down the Oswalt house, where did this new chain come from?
  • Ellison and So & So seem pretty certain that it is leaving the house of the previous victims that triggers the next murder, but now it seems that soaking up enough home videos is the actual vector. Which is it?
  • How did Vincent D’Onofrio’s Professor Jonas die? Was he just doing time on Ryker’s Island…?
  • Why was Dr. Stomberg concerned about talking to So & So about Bughuul on the phone?
  • What on earth did Stomberg’s recording of the ‘Norwegian hell call’ have to do with anything? Is this a set up for a sequel?
  • Were the ghost children carrying out Bughuul’s orders or did they have their own motives?

Finally, for some reason the writers took their arguably questionable 8mm film conceit — how are the parents of these kids not wondering where they got such an unusual piece of filmmaking nostalgia? — and added a gramophone to it. This is not a joke. Sinister 3 will presumably require its prepubescent cultists to receive ironic tattoos as Bughuul becomes the hipster boogieman our cultural moment deserves.

The Space Between

Woman in Black 2 was terribleThe Lazarus Effect was terribleThe Gallows was terrible (although there may be a good movie to be found in there somewhere). Sinister 2, while certainly not good, was far from terrible. The characters are strong and likable, the story is a bit of a mess but still enjoyable and the scares are ably directed.

Horror movies shouldn’t get extra credit for clearing such a low bar, but in a genre overrun with actually terrible films and sorely lacking in truly good works, we should recognize the solid entries that occupy the large space between.