Ed. note– In all honesty, I thought I posted this review ages ago. I probably forgot because SINISTER 2 is a forgettable film that lacks all the elements that made the first one great.– P.F.
When I first saw SINISTER in a hotel with Mike Cucinotta, it surprised me. With a great concept and a powerful central performance from Ethan Hawke, it was much better than I expected it to be. I consider it to be the best horror film of the last five years, so well made that it does something few horror films do anymore: it scares me. It’s about as perfect an effort as I’ve seen. It’s also a film that plays all its cards, and so it’s not ideally set up for a sequel. There were only two ways a sequel could go, in fact: copy the first film’s formula, or deviate widely from that path so it could squeeze fresh blood out of Bughuul’s victims. Not content to be a slavish retread, SINISTER 2 takes the second path. Which would have been great, if it weren’t a path to a total mess of a film that doesn’t realize all the things that made the original so effective.
The first problem is the shift in focus from Hawke’s Ellison Oswalt to Deputy So-and-So. I know people who think Hawke is an artsy elitist, but he gave his all as Oswalt, a faded author desperate to regain his notoriety and sacrificing everything to do so, including his life and the lives of his family. With Oswalt dead, there was no way to bring Hawke back. So writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill elevated the Deputy from minor status to main attraction. Don’t get me wrong; James Ransone does his best to make the now former deputy a tortured soul, who tracks down Bughuul’s victims’ houses and burns them down. So-and-So gets the chance to be brave several times throughout, putting his own life at great risk as he tries to stop Bughuul dead in the monster’s tracks. But the good deputy is no Ellison Oswalt, and Ransone is no Ethan Hawke.
So-and-So’s quest leads him to cross paths with abused wife Courtney Collins and her twin sons. We’re introduced to them as they’re food shopping, when Courtney notices a man following them. She tells her boys the code word, “rutabaga,” and they flee the supermarket. This is one of the best scenes in the film, because it’s a very real situation, and the script handles it with aplomb. It pairs well with a later scene; when Courtney’s tyrannical husband storms up the driveway with the local cops, So-and-So stops him from kidnapping his sons. The tension is thick, the fear in Courtney’s eyes real. Later that night, when she and So-and-So get drunk and kiss, I feel the release for both of them, two scared, flawed people looking for a redemption in one another. There’s a good movie somewhere in there, one I would have liked to see.
That movie is not this sequel to SINISTER, though, and so we get Bughuul’s Band of Creepy Kids, and boy do they ruin this flick. At this point, we know how the snuff films play into the family murders, and who’s committing them. With the cat out of the bag, Derrickson and Cargill pull back the curtain and show the seduction process. The Creepy Kids do their best to woo twin Dylan into watching the snuff films. When he proves too sensitive, they switch to his brother Zach. Let me tell you, I’ve never needed to see the background recruitment process that Bughuul’s HR department has put in place for his Creepy Kids. Not only does this demystify the whole first film, but these kids are awful actors. Mike warned me just how badly this tact failed, and he was right on the money.
He also said minus the kids, this flick was fine. I don’t agree with him there. The first flick benefited greatly from taking place almost exclusively in the Oswalts new house. Derrickson, serving as director, crafted a claustrophobic insanity by filming a handful of rooms, an attic and a hallway. SINISTER 2 opens up its geography, with the Collins farmhouse and not-too-distant spooky church, plus So-and-So’s hotel room, a university office and in the finale a cornfield. Director Ciaràn Foy does a decent job of filming these locales, but it’s all in vain as that sense of paranoia and the walls closing in vanishes in the sequel.
Speaking of filming, the snuff films were a strength of SINISTER. They were legitimately creepy, and all stuff that kids could pull off. Here, they’re preposterous. They employ an alligator and a trick with rats that cribs from one of those FAST AND FURIOUS flicks. I defy anyone to explain how a kid hoisted up two grown adults in the finale. Cargill and Derrickson seem to want to one-up the snuff films from the first film, but in doing so they only manage to make them outlandish, and worse, not scary.
On the horror end, there’s a few decent wrinkles here. The idea comes up that Bughuul doesn’t necessarily need to travel through film, but can use any medium of communication or art. This had me thinking what would happen if he modernized and went viral on the internet. Bughuul himself is still scary, but he’s relegated to background status. Ransone’s ex-deputy clearly fears him, and it’s a great use of dramatic irony as he stretches to get Courtney to stay in the house, knowing what will become of the family if they leave.
I also have to credit Shannyn Sossamon for a brave performance as Courtney. I can’t help thinking of the horrifying rape scene at the beginning of RULES OF ATTRACTION every time I see her, and maybe it’s her lot in life to play abused characters. Her performance is so realistic that it had me wondering if she’s ever dealt with real life abuse. Yes, she’s that convincing. It’s a courageous performance, but I fear it’s too good for this flick.
It was courageous for Derrickson and Cargill not to follow the safe route with SINISTER 2 by settling into the tracks laid down by the first film. I always applaud when artists try something different, and in this sequel it’s as if they deliberately run contrapposto to every element of SINISTER as they hunt down the path to expand the mythology. But it doesn’t work for me, sadly, and watching the flick only left me wanting for Hawke. Ellison Oswalt, now there’s a guy with a scary story.