The “Sinister” franchise is about family—or, more specifically, our anxieties about the corruption of the quintessential American family. We see this in the movie’s iconic Super 8 reels with their coy titles like “Lawn Work ’86” and “Sleepy Time ’98,” which transform quaint home movies into eerie snuff films. A large part of what made this theme work in the first movie was its protagonist, Ethan Hawke’s Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer and father, and his struggle to keep the dark nature of his work from affecting his family. It explored the fear that keeping the kids out of daddy’s home office might not be enough, as we saw Hawke’s conflicted character try to bring his family right to the heart of the horror he’s researching without destroying them.
To its credit, “Sinister 2” also explores the notion of family corruption—it just doesn’t execute (no pun intended) as well. Once again, we have a central focus on a family, but this time, the family is already broken. Where the Oswalts of the first film featured Hawke’s less-than-perfect-but-still-trying-in-his-way father figure, “Sinister 2” presents us with a family already torn apart by abuse at the start of the film. An interesting choice, but one that ultimately takes away from their downward spiral. This family already lives in fear. Before the plot really escalates, at first the entrance of the boogeyman and his army of ghost children never quite seems like the worst of their problems—and other than continuing the course for the plot that (thanks to the pattern revealed in the first movie) we can largely predict, for most of the film there isn’t much that this supernatural element enhances about the already-existing, already-corrupting conflict that the family in “Sinister 2” faces.
Our new protagonist, the now Ex-Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone—and yes, this is actually how our protagonist from the movie is billed in the credits) from the first film is certainly a more clear-cut “good guy” type than Hawke’s character, who was never anything near despicable although notably flawed by his curiosity and ambition—and this change doesn’t serve the movie well either. The ex-deputy is now obsessed with the film’s boogeyman, Baghuul, and the oddly related string of crimes surrounding his legend after assisting Hawke’s character in the first film, and he is trying to put an end to the deadly cycle by destroying the houses where the crimes have been committed. As we learned in part one, this boogeyman’s curse begins when a new family moves into one of the homes of his previous victims. Unfortunately for the ex-deputy, struggling single mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) is already occupying one of these tainted properties with her sons (played by twins Robert Daniel Sloan and Dartanian Sloan) by the time So-and-So gets to it. The ex-deputy, being an all-around nice guy (which Ransone plays well, albeit with fewer instances of the comic relief that defined the character in the first film), sticks around to get to know the family and play surrogate dad as he investigates the crime scene. So in contrast to Hawke’s flawed but compelling sense of curiosity, we now get So-and-So, the nice guy who inadvertently gets mixed up in troublesome situations. “Sinister 2” exists in a more black-and-white world than its predecessor: there are innocent “good guys” and inhumanly despicable “bad guys.” There are victims and abusers. There are nice kids and there are mean kids. The film suffers from this oversimplification, especially in comparison to the original, where the inherent innocence of children was ambiguous, where an otherwise decent father could make bad decisions.
“Sinister 2” also wants us to know more about how this boogeyman operates. We see (and hear from) the ghost kids far too much. These ghost kids, silent specters in the original, are now full of expository dialogue. Then there’s the boogeyman himself, who is seen in full only minutes into the film. There is less mystery, less intrigue, less ominous terror here, and a heavier focus on unimaginative and ultimately much less scary jump scares and exposition.
Even elements that the sequel borrows from the first film lose a bit of their luster. Courtney’s son Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) now dreams of Super 8 visuals when he isn’t being directly handed the reels by ghost children. This just doesn’t have the effect of the mysterious box of film reels found in the attic in the original. The soundtrack, a particularly notable feature of the first film with its mixing of what seems like ambient noise and tribal beats into something eerie that borders on being music or sound effects, reappears more sparingly in “Sinister 2,” causing it to make less of an impact on the film’s tone.
The snuff films are still unsettling—if at times a bit more over-the-top—in the sequel, and the movie seems to be trying to delve into what made the first installment tick. But as hard as it tries, “Sinister 2” just doesn’t “get it.”