Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Films of 2015: Sinister 2

I have watched with fascination and curiosity how, since the early 2010s, Hollywood has attempted to launch a new series of horror film franchises to compete with those beloved Freddy, Jason, Michael and Chucky films of the 1980s.

In particular, the early 2010s brought an end to the torture-based Saw series, and witnessed a resurgence of supernatural horror (perhaps as an antidote to the rise of the naturalistic found-footage format.)

All at once, it seemed like, Insidious (2011), Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), and Ouija (2014) arrived on the scene to form new and competing franchises. These franchises look and sound very much alike,  a factor which could work against them.  On the other hand, some scholars might make the same observation about the slasher sequels of the Reagan Era.

Insidious owes much creative energy to Poltergeist (1982), but nonetheless gave us a new genre star: Lin Shaye (as the medium Elise).

The Conjuring (quite smartly) decided to focus on its franchise protagonists, not the shifting boogey man villains, and the series has carved itself quite the profitable niche that way.

And Ouija -- well, what can I say? -- this film series has been quite hit or miss, with the most recent entry, Origin of Evil, proving dreadful.

We have also had two Sinister films so far, with the first entry earning strong reviews, and the second earning very poor reviews. 

As my review last week hopefully indicated, I appreciated much of Sinister, and felt that it possessed great promise.  And yet I did not love it quite enough to see the sequel in 2015 when it premiered.  I waited until this year, until just a week ago, to watch the sequel.

That choice might have been an error.

I found that, at the very least, the 2015 sequel aims to be consistent with the first film in terms of theme, visualization and background detail. Consistency is half the battle in horror film franchises, at least historically speaking.  I am old enough to remember the late eighties, for instance, when every new Elm Street or Friday the 13th film essentially tried to overwrite the information and background in the previous film entry. 

For instance, a hospital that was a centerpiece of Dream Warriors (1987), two years later, in 1989’s The Dream Child, was reported as having been abandoned for forty years.

At least Sinister 2’s creators aim for a thematic and consistent continuation from their source material. This movie also lingers on the corruption of the innocent, studies terror in a domestic or family situation, and ends, jarringly, with a humorous jump scare that might more aptly be described as a “pop up.”

However, as a student of film, and a lover of horror, I also appreciate that one key aspect of the “Bughuul” mythos involves filmmaking, or the idea of films created specifically as a “sacrifice” or appeasement for the central movie monster.  

This is a self-reflexive way, perhaps, of explaining horror’s function in our society. 

If we are to believe the catharsis theory of media, or even the catalytic theory (rather than the aggressive stimulation theory), horror films serve a public good.  They keep certain “demons” in check, at least for most viewers. 

It’s intriguing the way that Sinister 2 plays with this idea. Historians of the genre can draw a straight line from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), to Scream (1996), to Cabin in the Woods (2012), to the Sinister franchise, if they so desire.

All these films deal with boogeymen, and their relationship, in essence, to storytelling.

“You don’t stop evil. You only protect yourself from it.”

The deputy (James Ransone), who investigated the Ellison Oswalt murders has become obsessed with those crimes, and others like it, all of which involve seemingly happy families. The deputy scours the countryside looking for families who may have moved into “murder” houses.  If he finds the house empty, he burns it down, to prevent a new family from falling under an evil spell.

Unexpectedly, the deputy finds Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) living in a rural farmhouse next to a church where a massacre once occurred.  

She is hiding in the house from her abusive husband, living there with her two sons, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan). Courteney is unaware that the (ghost) children of Mr. Bughuul -- an ancient demon -- have made contact with her son, and are showing him their films.

These are snuff films, of children murdering their families, and it is clear that the ghost children are very interested in the boys making a new film, of their own family…

The deputy attempts to puzzle out what is occurring at the Collins house, but Bughuul’s time-line accelerates when Courtney’s abusive husband takes the boys and Courtney to his house, a precipitating incident that could result in the death of the entire family.

“It’s time to find them and finish your movie.”

The most fascinating aspect of Sinister 2 involves the films of the ghost children, which showcase horrible family murders.  Here, one film, “Fishing Trip,” shows a family being eaten by a crocodile. 

Another showcases the events at the Church, when rats chew their way through bound victims.  

“Christmas Morning” finds a family buried alive…in a snowy front yard. “Kitchen Remodel” involves electrocution.  There's even a film here about a dentist visit...and a drill.

All these films are immensely disturbing, with ironic and generic titles, and showcase dramatically the Sinister core conceit of the corruption of the innocent. It is horrifying to imagine a child turning against his or her parents, and his or her siblings, and staging such horrible murder scenes for filming. 

We learn from the deputy and one of his contacts at a local university that every Bughuul sacrifice involves the following factors: a missing child (whose soul is stolen), a murdered family, and, finally, a totem or “aesthetic observance of violence.” This final factor, of course, is the child’s film of the crime.

Basically, in the world of Sinister, every happy family occasion is actually a snuff film in the making.  

That is an incredibly dark premise, but it is fascinating that Bughuul demands that each of his acolytes make a film of this brutal violence, to appease him. It’s part of his central ritual, and a key aspect of the franchise itself.  

Film captures forever a moment, but it can also capture and bind violence, in a sense, short circuiting violence by offering catharsis.

At one point, Night of the Living Dead (1968) plays on the boys’ TV, particularly the sequence late in the film in which Mrs. Cooper is murdered by her ghoul daughter with a gardening implement.  

Here, then, is another on-screen totem of violence; of a child harming a parent, or family member.  The connection between the snuff films and a popular horror film is apparent. Both “appease” the darker forces that exist within us, whether demonic, or psychology-based. If horror films represent catharsis, then an act of violence like the one carried out in Night of the Living Dead, is, in a sense, therapeutic. It keeps our demons away, or satisfied, without the necessary resort to real life violence.

I appreciate the ritualistic, methodical scenes involving the film projector, the film reels, and the film canisters in Sinister 2.  There is an almost religious aura about these "holy" objects, and their role in Bughuul's rituatl.

My big concern with Sinister 2 and its snuff films is that we go behind the scenes, in sense, to watch Zachary make his film, at the climax, and it doesn’t make sense. 

The boy manages to string up on wooden crosses (in a corn field), his brother, his mother, and his father.  His brother he would have no problem with.  

But working alone, how on Earth does a skinny pre-teen boy manage to lift his father up on a cross?  The guy has to weigh 250 lbs! 

The scene couldn’t possibly be orchestrated by the boy, and the boy alone, and it isn’t made clear that the ghost children help in the heavy lifting.  Instead of providing the audience more answers, this sequence merely raises more questions.

Despite this lapse in plausibility, Sinister 2 succeeds in large part because it gives the film series its very own Dr. Sam Loomis, in the (unnamed) Deputy character.  Dr. Loomis, of course, was a fixture in the first several Halloween pictures.

This deputy character in Sinister 2 is a hold-over from the first film, and is a welcome presence here, building on his fund of knowledge from the Oswalt case. All Sinister films should include the character in at least some capacity, even if on the periphery, or in a supporting role. Like Loomis, he is a ready source of exposition, without matters seeming forced.

There’s also a subtext-style reading of Sinister 2, which I found welcome, and wish to discuss, at least briefly. 

Specifically, Zachary and Dillon are both abused by their violent father (as is Courteney). In the end, one child, Zachary, follows the pattern of his father, succumbing to Bughuul’s entreaties to murder his family.  In other words, the cycle of violence continues.  

A victim becomes, finally, an abuser, himself. The film’s end is terribly sad as only one brother manages to escape the cycle of violence. The other brother -- still but a boy -- loses his soul, having given in to the shroud of darkness that first touched his life thanks to the brutality of his father.

Certainly, I could do without Bughuul’s final jump scare/pop-up in Sinister 2, which is just as awkward and off-tone as was the final jump in the original.  

Still, I was gratified that Sinister 2 undertakes the job of horror movie franchise building well (showcasing the snuff films, continuing the obsession with innocence corrupted, and giving us a Dr. Loomis character.), 

In the final analysis, however, I was even more appreciative that this sequel offers a deeper reading too, one connecting human demons -- namely familial abuse -- with Bughuul’s demonic activity.

Perhaps Sinister 2 is a better film, and better horror sequel (or franchise-building film) than many of the critics recognized in 2015.

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