Kids aren’t scary. Not in a horror movie way, at least. Kids aren’t going to kill you. Kids are tiny things with short arms and unrefined motor skills. If a kid has a knife just kick them in the chest. Kids can be scary, say, if they’ve lost control, if they’re a danger to themselves. The Exorcist isn’t scary because Regan is going to hurt you — it’s scary because Regan is hurting herself and we’re powerless to stop it. Yet kids are everywhere in our modern mainstream horror scene, always in danger of being whisked away to an alternate dimension or possessed or turned into a talking ghost. By the way, talking ghosts aren’t scary either, especially if they’re kids.
There’s plenty of kids in Sinister 2, both of the homicidal and talking ghost variety. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who saw the first Sinister, one of the few above-average horror flicks to emerge from Blumhouse Productions, Jason Blum’s great-in-theory “low budget” horror production company. In that first film, Ethan Hawke plays a true crime novelist who stumbles upon a series of 8mm snuff films, which he then connects to an ancient Babylonian deity named Bughuul. It was heavy on lame jump scares, but Hawke was fantastic and the subtle glimpses we got of Bughuul, a monstrous, all-too-real boogeyman, were effective. Unfortunately, Sinister crumbled under the revelation that it was possessed 10-year-olds that were responsible for both the ritualistic murder of their families and the filming of the whole ordeal. When I was 10, I could barely climb the rope in gym class. It was stupid.
So is a lot of Sinister 2. It picks up a few years later with James Ransone’s Deputy So & So (they seriously don’t give him a name) attempting to curb the pattern of demonic possession he helped Hawke uncover in the first film. He eventually crosses paths with Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon), a single mom living illegally in an abandoned farmhouse with her two sons. So & So, knowing this house to be under Bughuul’s influence, wants them out so he can burn it to the ground. Meanwhile, Courtney’s son Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) is haunted by talking ghost children eager to show him the footage they made of their family’s murders. If he watches it, the film strongly implies, he’ll be ready to follow in their footsteps.
In an interview with Grantland, co-writer Scott Derrickson made it clear that he didn’t want the sequel to explain away the mysteries of Bughuul. He’s right, as revealing a monster’s backstory almost always serves to demystify and defang. But building a mythology can be just as dangerous, and that’s exactly what he and co-writer C. Robert Cargill do during these scenes with the ghost children. In fact, it’s what the Blumhouse crew has also been doing with both the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, and it’s driven them both into the ground with fuzzy logic, convoluted backstories, and decidedly non-scary info dumps.
The same goes for Sinister 2, which is a shame because there’s actually a lot to like here, most of it due to Irish director Ciarán Foy’s aggressive style. The 8mm movies, for one, are reminiscent of the video nasties of yesteryear, smearing scenes of torture with grit and slime. They’re undoubtedly effective, even if the “creativity” of the kills borders on comical by film’s end. There’s also the score, a deeply affecting cacophony of static crackles, blaring sirens, industrial drones, and tribal chants clearly inspired by the violent symphonies of Swans. Composing duo tomandandy deserve just as much credit as Foy for giving the film’s absurd climax the weight that it does.
And then there’s Ransone, a bizarrely compelling actor that brings a coiled energy to an otherwise bland character. Anyone who’s seen him as Ziggy on The Wire or Chester in this year’s Tangerine knows that Ransone is too much of a livewire to play a straight-faced protagonist, and there’s an element of unease to his performance as he tries to elevate So & So from comic relief to leading man. But part of Ransone’s appeal as an actor is that he’s unpolished, capable of mugging one minute and internalizing the next. In that way, he’s similar to cult actors like Leo Fitzpatrick and Crispin Glover, performers who don’t disappear into roles so much as they tweak their countenance.
Overshadowing Ransone, however, is Bughuul. He’s on full display here, and you’d be forgiven for wondering just which instrument it was that he played in Slipknot. His scattershot appearances don’t add up to much besides lame jump scares, which Sinister 2 specializes in. But even he’s not as silly as the film’s insistence that a child, possessed or not, could have the strength and know-how to mount multiple adults to wooden crosses. Also, where did those crosses come from? And all those Zippo lighters? Notice how I’m asking the questions you shouldn’t need to ask during movies like these. That’s because kids aren’t scary. Get rid of them, though, and Sinister 2 might be.