Friday, August 21, 2015

In Theaters: SINISTER 2 (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Ciarin Foy. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Nick King, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley. (R, 97 mins)

Scott Derrickson's SINISTER (2012) was a dark, grim shocker with at least one instant-classic sequence and ranks as one of the better horror films to come off the Blumhouse assembly line.  Derrickson co-wrote the first film with C. Robert Cargill, and both return to script the sequel, though Derrickson has delegated directing duties to Irish filmmaker Ciarin Foy. Foy wrote and directed the intermittently interesting 2012 high-rise horror indie CITADEL, a film with some effectively eerie sequences that just never quite gelled as a whole despite several terrifying moments. The intent of the script and the intent of the director often appear to be working at cross purposes throughout SINISTER 2: Derrickson and Cargill obviously want a modern horror movie filled with piercing jump scares and seem determined to turn boogeyman Bughuul (Nick King) into the next great horror icon, while Foy finds horror in the grounded reality of psychological trauma, much like his widower lead character in CITADEL, a timid man forced to protect himself and his infant child from a marauding gang of feral children prowling the building and seemingly singling him out to terrorize. Foy has said that CITADEL's story was born from a horrific mugging he endured where he violently beaten and stuck with a syringe, and while CITADEL had some undeniably frightening moments, Foy never quite pulled it all together, almost like his script needed one more draft before he got it right. There's a similar feeling throughout SINISTER 2: there's scary elements here, but they're the elements that don't involve the Bughuul silliness and the ghost children.

Taking place a few months after the events of the first film and the tragic fate of the family of celebrity true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), SINISTER's unnamed "Deputy So & So" (James Ransone), the Barney Fife-ish sheriff's deputy and Ellison Oswalt superfan, is promoted to lead character for SINISTER 2. Fired from his job and working as a private eye to make ends meet, So & So is actually on a personal mission to locate and burn down the abandoned homes of families murdered by children in order to prevent future supernatural influence of Bughuul. The exact intent of Bughuul, the corpse-painted boogeyman who looks like the frontman for a Scandinavian black metal band, is a little hazy, but he basically, via ghosts of other dead children, cajoles impressionable kids to carefully plan the elaborately-staged murder of their entire family and film it on Super 8. A lot of this is just an excuse for some inherently creepy, grainy sequences of families being burned alive, electrocuted, or having rats gnaw through them all to the tune of some droning, nerve-jangling music by the duo of tomandandy. So & So ends up at a farmhouse in rural Illinois that he believes to be vacant but is actually occupied by Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon), who is more or less squatting there with her twin sons Dylan (Robert Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), the three of them hiding from her estranged, abusive husband Clint (Lea Coco). The house's previous occupants were killed in the barn behind the house and troubled Dylan is already being haunted by visions of Bughuul and dead children convincing him to murder his family.

Where the first film was primarily about Oswalt's investigation into the murders of his house's previous owners, Bughuul was seen only fleetingly, which made his infrequent appearances that much more jarring. Here, Derrickson (also a producer) and Cargill have Foy showing entirely too much of Bughuul, to the point where he ceases to be scary. Indeed, if there's a SINISTER 3, they'll likely have him start talking and dropping the kind of snarky bon mots that turned A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Freddy Krueger from a frightening and relatively quiet dream demon to a motor-mouthed stand-up comedian by the third and fourth entries in the series. No, the truly scary parts of SINISTER 2 lie beyond Bughuul, and it starts with the effective casting of the young Sloan boys (they're actually part of a set of triplets--they have a sister as well). They aren't completely identical and each is very good in challenging roles. As the introverted Dylan, the chief target of his father's abuse, the thinner, ganglier Robert Sloan perfectly conveys the slump-shouldered sadness of his character, a boy practically afraid of his own shadow and who reflexively wets himself at the sight of his bullying father. The stockier Dartanian plays the more outgoing and less book-smart Zach, the kind of pushy competitor that identifies him as his dad's favorite. The real sense of horror and suffocating tension in SINISTER 2 arrives with the appearance of Coco, who in just three or four short scenes is more terrifying than any of the times we see Bughuul. Sossamon and the Sloans also do their best acting in the scenes later in the film with Coco, whose control-freak Clint won't even allow anyone else at dinner to eat until he's taken his first bite, and is a man crude enough to announce "Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go fuck my wife" after he beats the shit out of So & So, who shows up unannounced to warn him that they're all in danger. Coco is the secret weapon of SINISTER 2, so much so that you'll actually feel your adrenaline pumping in the extreme discomfort his performance incites. It's he--not the grimacing Bughuul--who's the most frightening thing in the film.

There's a stronger, thematically deeper, and more disturbing film to be made with SINISTER 2 had the focus been entirely on the Collins family and its victimization by Clint--and to an extent Zach, who's clearly on his way to being just like his old man--and how that victimization and the cycle of abuse make it so easy for Bughuul and his supernatural acolytes to sway Dylan. Ransone is likable enough in a second-string Luke Wilson kind-of way as the affable So & So, but did his character even need to return? The filmmakers really drop the ball in the climax in a way that can't properly be described without massive spoilers, but let's just say it takes some leaps and is a tremendous letdown and feels like a scene or two seems to be missing. Foy's voice made itself heard in CITADEL but it was hampered by a script that wasn't quite ready for prime time. Here, that same voice is present but it's muffled by Derrickson's and Cargill's need to turn Bughuul into the face of a franchise. There's some real horror here grounded in everyday, ugly reality, but SINISTER 2 is more concerned with tired jump scares and CGI ghosts.

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