Sunday, 6 September 2015


I'm going to take a short break from my ongoing Film4 FrightFest coverage to review a current release. Rest assured though, there's plenty more to come from FrightFest, including a review of my favourite title there.
But for now let's look at a sequel to one of my favourite genre flicks of recent years — Sinister.

SINISTER 2 (2015)

Dir: Ciaran Foy
Starring: Shannyn Sossaman, James Ransone, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but I WILL assume you've seen the original so read on at your own risk.

Time has passed since the shocking murders and disappearance at the Oswalt house but the horrors of that night have not been forgotten. The still-unnamed former Deputy So-and-So (Ransone) may have left the force under a cloud for his role as Ellison's police informant, but he continues to investigate the case and its links to similar homicides around the country. 
Thankfully he has made a breakthrough in his ongoing quest to thwart the demonic Bughuul — he has spotted a pattern that shows the incidents only occur when somebody leaves a previous murder site, spreading the curse as they go. Now he is attempting to end the bloodshed by locating each house and burning it to the ground before another family can move in and fall victim.
However, the former lawman hits a snag at the latest house — in the form of tough single mum Courtney (Sossaman) and her twin sons Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan).
It seems the Collins family are hiding out away from the clutches of the boys' wealthy and abusive father, Clint (Coco).
But as ex-deputy So-and-So finds himself drawn into this family drama (and hints of romance spark between him and Courtney), he is unaware that the envoys of Bughuul, the ghostly children taken at each sacrifice, have already reached out to the sensitive Dylan.
Led by the creepy Milo (Zumann) the spectral kids are attempting to recruit the young and troubled boy to the cause, each showing him the horrific tape they created and imploring him to make his own or risk incurring Bughuul's wrath.
As events conspire to drive the Collins family out of their home and advance Bughuul's plan, the former deputy and desperate mother face a heart-wrenching battle to protect the family from danger — of both supernatural and human origin.

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Sometimes seeing a film after reading the first wave of reviews is actually a pretty good thing. After seeing the way in which a number of reviewers for whom I have a great deal of respect tore Sinister 2 to shreds, I went in expecting a disaster.
That is most certainly not the case here.
Like Insidious Chapter 2 before it, Sinister 2 is a clever sequel that expands on that which came before in a way that enriches the mythos. The fact is that the twist of the first film (that Bughuul recruits the children of the families he takes as sacrifices) is already known to most of the audience, so now we are afforded a look into that recruitment process. It's an interesting take, showing the vile corrupting work of Bughuul and his minions as it unfolds.
It would have been very easy to just churn out a rehash of the first movie but here original writers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill return to their creation and branch out a little. With a backstory as rich as that of the first Sinister, it's nice to explore it a little more. 
As such we are given more insight into the 'rules' of the film's mythology, yet the story also feels as if it's treading new ground. There are just two returning characters from the first film — Ransone's So-and-So and King's Bughuul. 
Thankfully, one of the things that Sinister 2 shares with its predecessor is a wise choice to keep the demonic 'Mr Boogie' in shadow, featuring him sparingly. It's a character with no lines and very limited screentime, so Bughuul barely counts as a returning character. That's not to say that King isn't great in the role — he's fantastically creepy, but his appearances are held in reserve for the big scares.
So essentially Ransone is the only familiar face from the first film. I have a confession to make — I found it more than a little daft when random background characters in the Saw series were elevated to leading roles as all the original major characters left or died. When I heard that the comic relief character from the first Sinister was poised to take up hero duty in part two, I was very sceptical.
However, Ransone is one of the highlights of the film. His dorky, comic timing gives him an inherent likeability while also firmly placing him as a sensitive underdog, a character that you can't help but root for. This is in direct contrast to Ethan Hawke's Ellison Oswalt in the first film, a selfish and ultimately pretty unpleasant lead. Once again the writers try a different tack and it works. 
As for Ransone himself, he proves more than capable of carrying the increased screentime afforded his character and, while his character isn't required to display too much range (he pretty much alternates between scared shitless and determined to do the right thing), he is well up to the task he is given. If there is a Sinister 3 (which seems pretty likely to me) I hope Ransone makes it a hattrick of appearances.
Opposite Ransone as the female lead is the wonderful Sossaman. Hot off her successful role in the TV smash Wayward Pines, Sossaman has an enviable role here. She gets plenty to do — from caring mother, to tough-survivor, by way of terrified victim, this is a role that requires plenty of range. She's a good-looking woman, which certainly helps viewers to buy into the blossoming romance, but she has the acting ability to go along with those looks. She really is quite excellent.
The young Sloan boys are also very good in their roles as Dylan and Zach. Robert keeps Dylan sympathetic, he's the more sensitive of the boys, the mental scars of his father's abuse obvious. From a plot standpoint, this makes all the more sense as he is the one more susceptible to the bullying and threats of Bughuul and his spectral assistants. Sloan is very believable in the role and ensures that you feel sympathetic towards him, even as you start to fear what he might do next.
Meanwhile Dartanian's Zach has an arc that is far more complex then it might first appear. I won't spoil the ins-and-outs here, but I will say that it is brave and makes perfect sense from a characte standpoint. It may require a more broad performance than his brother's, but Dartanian is more than up to the task.
Zach's fiery determination has more in common with his aggressive father, Coco's Clint. 
Coco's bullying, seething character is genuinely horrifying , something even more terrifying than the ancient Babylonian demon at the centre of the tale, because this is the sort of real world monster that walks among us. A beast born of privilege, Clint is a repulsive character and Coco does a superb job in bringing him to life. It can't be easy playing somebody so utterly reprehensible but Coco puts in a performance that is believably hateable without ever descending into caricature.
The final pieces of the puzzle are the child spirits that serve Bughuul. Child actors can be hit and miss, especially those in genre films, but this is a gifted bunch. Special credit must go to the very creepy Zumann as the group's leader, Milo. The ghost kids are given much more to do this time around (rather than merely pulling off a supposedly spooky interpretive dance routine) and Zumann is given the bulk of the heavy lifting. Thankfully he — and Klein, Haley, Fritz and Rainey — are all well up to the task and deliver some effective chills.
And of course, ultimately, it is a horror movie's chills that it will be judged upon. 
Sinister 2 definitely delivers some fine scary moments. There are a few very well-executed jump-scares and some equally creepy moments. The scenes with the ham radio are probably the most unsettling of the lot, along with the aforementioned sporadic Bughuul moments. 
There's a wonderful poltergeist-esque moment late on when we see the spirits at work, then when we are shown what the victims of this particular phantom menace can see — a tiny destructive localised indoor hurricane — it is very creepy indeed.
Now, the greatest scares in the first Sinister came from the horrifying home videos. They made such an impact that I'd go so far as to call 'Lawn Work' one of the five scariest film moments of the past 10 years. The videos are back this time, although we get a whole new bunch to watch. They're a mixed bag but the nightmarish 'Sunday Service' is undoubtedly the highlight (or low-point, depending on your viewpoint). Brrrr!

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): The problem with many horror sequels is that familiarity robs the subject of much of its ability to scare. It is the mystery of the unknown that provides most of the fear, and knowing exactly what it is that our leads are facing and how it goes about its monstrous business often steals some of the terror and mystique.
This is one of the issues with Sinister 2. While the child actors are very good, I can't help but feel that less time with them could have added up to more.
In fact, this heavy-handedness with the scariness of the children is evident in the now over-used black vein make-up and creepy pale contact lenses. We are kind of given a reason for this late on (well, sort of) but it's become a horror cliche. There are plenty of ways in which ghostly children can be frightening without relying on this overplayed trope. 
Another area in which the film goes too far with an already creepy element, unfortunately, is the scary home videos. Much like the overly elaborate traps in the later entries in the Saw franchise, at times the videos here feel a little over-produced. In the first movie they chilled because they felt incredibly realistic, with a rough around the edges feel that simply added to their believability. Here the tapes are all a little more polished, with some moody, atmospheric sounds (often from a frankly unnecessary hand-cranked gramophone which feels like 'spooky prop' overload) and an array of interesting angles and framing choices that make it feel more like a Nine Inch Nails music video than a hastily shot and life-like snuff film. A couple of the tapes are also damaged by some decidedly dodgy CG moments that utterly ruin the moment. I'm not saying all are awful, as well as the aforementioned 'Sunday Service' I thought 'Christmas Morning' was legitimately disturbing, but they all feel a little TOO 'horror movie'-ish. 
I suppose the biggest problem with Sinister 2 is that it never quite takes that big step up to the stuff of nightmares that the original movie did. While the first film suffered from a major misfire of a lull in the final act before the deeply upsetting climax, this film never quite dips to that level, but at the same time it never quite hits the highs of its predecessor either. It's more consistent, but perhaps that's because it doesn't take the same risks that the first film did. It all feels a little safe. Even the ending (which is brave enough to commit one major horror no-no) lacks the punch of the first, while the weakest videos 'Kitchen Remodel' and 'Fishing Trip' don't get close to the thrills of those in the original Sinister.
Most critics have targeted the film's decision to focus on jump scares over building legitimate dread and fear. I know the Blumhouse trademark is the 'keyboard-slam' jump, and I'm well aware of how much that irritates people. I look at a base, visceral physical reaction as an equally valid pay-off to tension. When walking through Haunt attractions or riding on rollercoasters, there's no intricately woven nightmare fodder — there's jolts and shocks. I enjoy these for what they are and, provided the jumps actually tie into the story (i.e. no spring-propelled cats in lockers) and are well-executed, I can appreciate them.
When I viewed (and reviewed) Ghost Stories during its run in the West End, I praised the show profusely — not just for the fantastic and wonderfully creepy tale at its heart but for a number of absolutely heart-stopping jumps. Perhaps jump scares have become too common in horror, but much like Found Footage, I've not yet reached the end of my patience. I suppose it's all a matter of personal preference. Make your own decision.

THE VERDICT: I loved the original Sinister. I may have lost some cred for saying it earlier, but it's one of my favourite recent horror films. I would have been happy to see more of the same, but I appreciate the filmmakers' decision to branch out and expand on the original story. Critics have been quick to jump on the sequel's misfires, but if I'm honest the original had its fair share.
What you get here is a polished horror flick with some very nice moments that doesn't quite hit the A standard that some were hoping for, but instead offers a entirely enjoyable C+/B-. 
It's not dulled my desire to see more of Bughuul, Milo, the creepy videos and the newly introduced ham radio. It's a cool film and I'd love to see a Sinister 3.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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