Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Sinister 2

Fear belongs to the unknown. It's incredibly difficult to be scared of something that you know, something that you understand, something that you've seen many times before. This is what made the original Sinister such a triumph of the horror genre. It kept things small, the demons hid in the shadows; what began as a simple murder mystery evolved into a supernatural horror smoothly and very effectively. It was incredibly rare to have a scene take place outside of the family's household, Bughuul was never on screen for more than a split second until the final moments, and he was rarely shown in the physical world of the film. Bughuul remained a mystery, an enigma. Him and his child ghost victims remained silent, haunting the household in the film's latter half without revealing anything about themselves or their plans. Sinister was a fantastically effective horror simply by keeping things small and contained. Sinister 2 chooses to completely ignore this; Bughuul and his ghost children are seen in the opening sequence, the film throws its setting all over the place, the ghost children talk about their plans, more insight is offered into Bughuul's realm and existence. So Sinister 2 becomes monumentally bigger, it just doesn't get better.

There has been an awful lot of negative press surrounding this film. An ultra-low 13% score on Rotten Tomatoes feels woefully unjustified having seen the film. Sinister 2 is not a very good film, and it pales in comparison to the original, but it's entertaining enough to see it through its snappy run time and does actually succeed in some areas most modern horrors fail to explore. One other element that made the original so successful was its focus on character and family; we learnt a lot about these people and it made us care about them. The most effective way to evoke fear in a film is to make the viewer care about the characters, and Sinister sold that entirely. Sinister 2 takes on a different family, and mostly succeeds with them too, thanks to generally solid acting all round. Courtney is a likable mother who visibly wants the best for her children, whilst both of her kids are realistically written. But the concept of an abusive ex-husband/father feels forced into the narrative in order to give the family a motive to move home for the film's finale, it isn't properly integrated into the characters or the story.

Should the film have pushed a bit harder, some impressive character work and thematic content could have arisen here. As Dylan was the son who was beaten by his father, his connection to Bughuul and the ghost children has the potential to be seen as escapism for him, but the film is more content to simply allow this to make Dylan and Zach fight. Whilst Dylan is outside alone, he aims his loaded slingshot at a spider, only to discover he can't bring himself to kill it. It's made repeatedly clear that Dylan is more like mother than his father, but this isn't worked into the story as well as it could have been. Rather than crafting a compelling family with interesting and innovative themes, Sinister 2 is happy to simply lay out the basics, make them work, then give up. The most effective horror films of the last few years have focused on their characters over their scares, because this makes the horror so much easier to work in. When we like the characters we are plunged into a state that makes us fear for them, even when nothing is happening. Sinister 2 pulls this feat off occasionally, but it would have to work very, very hard to genuinely make us fear for this family.

And, unfortunately, it just doesn't work hard enough. Sinister 2 isn't a particularly scary horror film, mostly down to the fact that it relies heavily on jump scares. Faces suddenly appear in front of the camera, the music gets louder, and we cut to a character looking scared. This isn't horror. This is a cheap way of making the audience jump so that, in that moment, their heart beats faster and they feel scared. But, unless played cleverly, it isn't a feeling that lasts very long, and isn't really something that works on repeated viewings. The original film's pride and joy were its snuff films; eerie Super 8 footage with unusual soundtracks, showing families murdered by their own children. Much like every other aspect, Sinister 2 makes these snuff films bigger, and predominantly less effective. Besides one surprisingly intense rat-based snuff film in the second act which is immediately followed by a successfully creepy chase through the house, not much of the horror here works. It's all loud noises and no real tension.

Another aspect I love about the original Sinister (in case it wasn't clear, it is a personal favourite of mine) is its cinematography. The film frequently employs canted angle camerawork and elongated takes to make the scenes feel off; the viewer notices something unusual and begins to feel nervous, starting that feel of terror off simply. Sinister 2 does somewhat manage to recapture this, albeit wildly less so than its predecessor. The camera hovers and soars towards characters almost like a bird flying through the sky, before stopping suddenly as it lands. As we follow Dylan around the house, the frame is tilted slightly, creating an uneasy aesthetic. It's all solid visually, but the film just doesn't follow through on it. If the cinematography begins to edge us into good horror territory, the film's sketchy story and poor execution sucks us straight out of it.

Sinister 2's biggest issue is how much bigger it tries to be. Not only does this ruin the horror tone, but it also evokes a number of plot holes and unanswered questions. When exactly were these snuff films meant to be shot? The original offered us a clear timeline, here they're just used because the filmmakers feel they need to be. What is happening in Norway? Does Bughuul have a Norwegian cousin or does he just have a timeshare over there and hops over for the summer? By expanding the film's rules and bringing the villains out of the shadows, they immediately feel less scary. We know the ghost children now, they talk and tell us what their plan always was. We even know them by name. The cast try their best (James Ransone and Shannyn Sossamon are enjoyable as the film's leads) and it has the groundwork of some good characterization, but it's all just tossed aside in favour of thuds, crashes and bangs. Sinister will always be a stellar horror film that scarcely puts a foot wrong, but it has been burdened with a follow up that complies by every horror sequel rule in the book. It chucks pretty much everything into the mix, it just doesn't know what it wants to do with them.

To Summarise: Sinister 2 benefits from effective cinematography and solid performances from its leads, but they can't make up for the film's messy plot, convoluted logic and an almost total lack of real horror.

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