Horror sequels are, by and large, the sorriest of the sorry, and “Sinister 2” is no exception to that depressing rule. Co-written by the original’s director Scott Derrickson, but featuring none of its predecessor’s sumptuous pitch-black visuals and sense of creeping dread, Ciaran Foy’s follow-up is a misbegotten venture at every turn, in large part because it follows the horror sophomore rulebook so closely. Replacing a charismatic star (Ethan Hawke) with far less engaging ones (James Ransone and Shannon Sossamon), adding more nonsensical “rules” to its supernatural mythos, and shifting its center of attention more squarely toward its villains – a move that never fails to make said spooks less scary – it’s a continuation of a franchise that never should have made it past its first installment.
Picking up shortly after the events of 2012’s “Sinister,” Foy’s film finds the so-lame-he-doesn’t-get-a-name Deputy So & So (Ransone) now working as a private investigator who spends most of his time tracking down other possible homes torn apart by supernatural boogeyman Bughuul. The supernatural fiend’s modus operandi involves snatching away children, albeit only after compelling those kids to first murder their families in elaborate ways and, moreover, to film their crimes with Super 8mm cameras. Who edits these macabre shorts together, or does the mixing for their distorted-to-unholy-proportions soundtracks — and for that matter, why doesn’t Bughuul just invest in a new HD cameras for his young prodigies — are questions left unanswered by “Sinister 2,” which instead simply assumes that grainy, jumpy home movies are the height of terror, even as they conform to a standard, tiresome formula (happy-go-lucky footage followed by screechy mayhem).
Bughuul himself remains largely in the shadows, presumably because his long stringy hair, black suit with white shirt (its cuffs longer than the jacket sleeves), and mouthless face make him appear like a slightly more ghoulish Michael Jackson. Rather, Bughuul’s ghost children dominate “Sinister 2,” as they’re tasked with convincing a new potential target to join their gang. That kid is Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan), who’s on the run with his mom Courtney (Sossamon) and brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan) from his punch-happy pappy Clint (Lea Coco). Their flight takes them to a remote Indiana house next to a church where one of Bughuul’s charges – a well-dressed boy named Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann) – killed his pious Mom, Dad, and sibling by having rats gnaw through their stomachs, and now has set about making return visits from the afterlife to convince Dylan to do likewise against his monstrous dad, jerk brother, and passive mother.
To convince Dylan to carry out his devilish mission, Milo and friends show him their own murder movies, which So & So learns during his investigation are required by Bughuul as “aesthetic observances of violence.” Were such pseudo-intellectual nonsense played with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Sinister 2” might have had some fun goofing around with the idea of cinema as a conduit-cum-reflection of its makers’ most violent urges. Alas, there’s no self-referential commentary to be found here, only a series of dull shock tactics involving Bughuul briefly materializing behind So & So, and failed gruesome set pieces that reek of screenwriters struggling to up the diabolical ante on their former material.
While child stars of “Sinister 2” are merely forgettable in poorly drawn roles – with Zumann faring worst as Milo, a two-bit specter in Sunday church attire – it’s the adult leads who do much to render the proceedings cartoonish. For Sossamon, maternal protectiveness takes the form of some comforting glances and occasional screaming; a sequence that finds her drunkenly coming on to So & So by bluntly declaring that she wishes he were her babies’ daddy is the height of unintentional awkwardness. Nonetheless she’s overshadowed by Ransone as So & So, a clownish good guy whose every utterance comes equipped with some aw-shucks affectation, be it exaggerated wide-eyed reactions or toothy grins. Far better served by his supporting role in the first film, where he was charmingly off-kilter as a foil for Hawke’s harried writer, Ransone finds the spotlight an uncomfortable position in “Sinister 2,” turning in a tone-deaf performance that’s far scarier than Bughuul’s bag of loud-noise jolts, and helping to validate this knuckleheaded story’s portrait of cinema as a potential gateway to pain and suffering. [C-]