The brainchild of writer-director Scott Derrickson (2014's "Deliver Us from Evil
") and C. Robert Cargill, 2012's sensationally wicked "Sinister
" was a notch or two above most studio-produced genre fare. In terms of its attentive character work, its asphyxiatingly ghastly atmosphere, and its positively chilling use of super-8 home-movie-style snuff films to portray the murderous legacy orchestrated by a child-possessing Pagan deity named Bughuul (Nick King), the picture held a radical, somehow dangerous spirit with the power to set viewers on edge for days. In telling of a true-crime author (Ethan Hawke) working on his latest book who unwisely moves his family into a Pennsylvania home where the former owners were systematically hanged, "Sinister
" expertly built dread not through jump scaresalthough there were a few, strategically placedbut through the foreboding strength of its imagery and the sheer apprehension of what was to come next. If it took a wrong step during its high-wire act (as it did in the too-obvious final frame), these stumbles were few and far between in a film exhibiting both restraint and a shivery lack of compromise.
As a return engagement into the lore explored in the original, "Sinister 2" isn't without some singularly chilling moments, but it just as frequently goes awry. Taking over for Derrickson, director Ciar´n Foy (2012's "Citadel") aims to recapture the previous film's doom-laden feel, yet demonstrates no such sense of subtlety. Whereas Bughuul and his brood of brainwashedand yes, corpsychildren were used sparingly and largely kept in the dark before, they now nonchalantly prance around from the start, less symbolic representations of evil and more like preening supporting characters. This storytelling choice proves damning, the gnarled, spectral mystique of its heavies and the blackened mystery surrounding them all but entirely vanishing.
Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) is on the run from her abusive husband Clint (Lea Coco), determined to protect and retain full custody of twin sons Dylan (Robert Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan). Hanging low at an empty country house, Courtney has no time to worry about the horrible ritualistic mass killings that once took place in the abandoned church sitting on her property. As she bides her time with antique restoration projects, Dylan has begun getting visits from Bughuul's children, each one with a prized filmstrip to show him of their own families' grueling demises. By chance, their lives collide with that of an ex-deputy-turned-private-investigator (James Ransone) whom Ethan Hawke's ill-fated Ellison Oswalt once confided. One of the only surviving souls who knows of this demonic entity's deadly power, he now travels around, secretly torching each cursed home where the interconnected unsolved murders took place. He wants to help Courtney, but doesn't yet know that the real immediate danger lies with the impressionable kid chosen to do Bughuul's heinous bidding.
"Sinister 2" has a decidedly predictable trajectory with one key twist: unlike "Sinister
," which focused on an adult future victim unraveling the baffling clues foretelling of his grim fate, this installment adopts the partial point-of-view of a child exposed to Bughuul's possessive, transfixing malevolence. It is somewhat interesting to see a different side of the same basic premise, but in choosing to forge this route screenwriters Derrickson and Cargill pull the curtain back on something that should have been left in the shadows. As goosebump-inducingly ominous and enigmatic as this pasty, witch-like central villain was in the earlier picture, he is shown so much here that he no longer has the same shuddersome effect. Now he just looks like an actor in goth makeup, and there's nothing scary about that. Thank goodness, then, for the return of the grainy super-8 home movies, each one so twisted and raw and ghoulish they singlehandedly save the film from total collapse. The most harrowing of them all? One affectionately called "Christmas Morning," wherein a family's cheerful yuletide celebration takes an unnervingly frostbitten left turn.
There are hints of savage catharsis in "Sinister 2," but they share time with scenes where people hallucinate tacky CG pools of blood, are accosted by invisible forces that toss papers around rooms, and carry out full conversations with undead youngsters who materialize out of thin air and say darling things like, "You won't like what happens when he gets angry." Shannyn Sossamon (2008's "One Missed Call
"), as the earnest, put-upon Courtney, and James Ransone (2013's "Oldboy
"), returning as the good-hearted Deputy, act as if they are in an intimate, nuanced romantic indie drama, their relationship and Courtney's domestic conflicts seeming like leftovers from a once-stronger script. They are better than the inferior horror sequel in which they are trapped. Director Ciar´n Foy is capable of greatnessthe first half of his debut feature, "Citadel," is as seriously frightening and harrowingly claustrophobic as movies can getbut this sophomore effort is less inspired. "Sinister 2" forgets the unknown almost always leaves a more indelibly fearsome impression than a spilled bag of ineffective musical stingers and overexposed bad guys jumping out on cue. The result, sadly, is a film that repeatedly reminds how and why its predecessor
got so much right that this one gets wrong.