Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sinister Part Deux

After availing myself to the charms of the original Sinister the other evening, I went right into its sequel — titled Sinister 2, believe it or not — so I figured why not give it a little critique as well? Clearly, from the reviews and ratings out there, this one didn't earn much love, but I avoided reading any plot details so I could experience it with a reasonably open mind. I did presume it would go the way of most sequels — inferior to its predecessor — and on that count, my expectations were not wrong. However, somewhat to my surprise, I found it anything but deserving of all the hate heaped upon it. I suppose it goes without saying that people who didn't like the first film would likely not care for this one, and many of the reviews I saw came from that point of view, though I wonder, if someone detested the original, why they would bother to watch its follow-up, not to mention devote the time and energy to review it. While a few too-familiar, gimmicky plot devices rear their ugly heads, for the most part, Sinister 2 doesn't merely stomp along on a worn-out path; happily, it takes a bit of a detour and spends less time on Bughuul, the boogeyman from the first movie, than on the mental and emotional decline of a couple of young boys who are subjected to Mr. Boogie's influence.

Spoilers: Yes.

Whereas in the first movie Bughuul remained a creepy, shadowy figure with an intriguing origin, in this one, Bughuul is, unfortunately, the weakest link. From time to time, he pops up to remind us that he is actually the motivating force behind the dark events on the screen, but the scenes in which he appears leave little to the imagination. He's no longer a half-hidden background figure but a clearly seen, big-as-life cinematic bad guy, the ultimate effect being that he no longer has any power to disturb.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of disturbing moments in the movie. The on-screen murders actually are pretty unsettling, all the more so because, as in the first movie, they're committed by children. That fact having been established, Sinister 2 opens right up with some graphic violence perpetrated by minors. Evil children may have been done to death, and among reviewers there have been some apt comparisons to Children of the Corn, but in this movie, we're presented with some decent characterizations, featuring very good juvenile actors. In fact, all the actors, young and old, do a fine job with the material at hand, elevating this movie several notches above what it might have been in less capable hands.

Young Dylan Collins (Robert Daniel Sloan), his twin brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan), and their mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) have moved into an old farmhouse, apparently to escape the attention of her abusive ex-husband. Dylan has ongoing dreams of murders at an abandoned church on the property, and he begins seeing the ghosts of dead children, led by a boy named Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), who show him movies of various grisly murders, telling him that the only way to make them stop is to watch all the movies to the end. These experiences horrify him, but he soon learns that Zach has also seen the ghosts, and unlike Dylan, Zach revels in the supernatural attention.

Ex-Deputy "So-and-So" (James Ransone), from the original film, knowing the truth about Bughuul, has gone about burning down houses where murders have occurred to prevent further killings at those sites. Unaware that the house is occupied, he comes to Courtney's place to destroy it. Surprised by her presence, he claims to be a private investigator, which prompts her to believe he is working for her ex-husband. However, he convinces her he is looking into old murders at the neighboring church.

Shortly afterward, Courtney's ex-husband, Clint (Lea Coco), does show up, intending to take the boys away from her, but Ex-Deputy intervenes and forces him to leave. Next, Ex-Deputy meets a young professor named Stomberg (Tate Ellington), who has been investigating the disappearance of Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio, from the first movie). Stomberg possesses Jonas's old ham radio set, from which he has heard the voices of children and what he assumes to be Bughuul. Ex-Deputy urges Stomberg to destroy the set.

Clint once again comes around to Courtney's and this time successfully regains custody of the two boys. However, Zach, now under the influence of the ghostly children, drugs Clint, Courtney, and Dylan. Next thing we know, the three have been strung up on crosses, and Zach burns Clint to death while he films it on an 8mm camera. Before Zach can kill his brother and mother, Ex-Deputy arrives on the scene and destroys the camera, preventing Zach from completing the task his ghostly masters have demanded. Ex-Deputy frees Courtney and Dylan, but Zach is forced to flee from the ghosts as well as Bughuul, who appears to him in the flesh....

At the end of the film, Ex-Deputy is surprised to find Professor Jonas's ham radio set in his motel room, and even more surprised by what comes out of it.
Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and Ex-Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone)
One of the home movies depicts a little fishing trip, complete with hungry, man-eating alligators....
The youthful subjects of Bughuul, on the prowl for souls to steal
Rather than Bughuul, the focus of the story is on the tension between the characters, particularly between Dylan and Zach and Courtney and Clint. While the ghosts make their awful demands on Dylan, he is less afraid of them than disgusted by what they want him to do. Zach, on the other hand, clearly having inherited his father's antisocial tendencies, actually desires to be part of that circle, though he is initially rebuffed. Both young actors play their parts to convincing effect, one sensitive and sympathetic, the other as cold and depraved as a hardened murderer — at one point deriding his mother and calling her a "cunt" with almost too-convincing viciousness.

James Ransone, returning from the first film as (now Ex-) Deputy "So-and-So," takes on leading duties, and the insecure, stuttering, and physically diminutive character comes across as a refreshing change from Ethan Hawke's crustier, cynical main character in the original Sinister. But every now and then, our deputy finds a burst of inner strength, such as when he stands up to Courtney's bullying ex-husband, Clint. The meeting between Deputy and Professor Stomberg plays like a nerd convention almost worthy of The Big Bang Theory, except for it being pretty scary. The scene in which Stomberg tells of having heard children's voices on the ham radio set is one of the creepier moments in the film.

Here, I find it sad that one of the neatest scenes in the movie is relegated to the "deleted" section of the Blu-ray. In the first film, the main title track by composer Christopher Young — reprised in this film — features a distorted child's voice calling out numbers,  which turn out to be the geographic coordinates of the various murder sites. As an avid geocacher, I am filled with all kinds of dark ideas for a new set of caches based on this very premise. (Cachers, beware!)

While distinctly inferior to its predecessor, Sinister 2 at the very least presents itself as much more than a mere retread of concepts introduced in the first film. It's a shame that the character of Bughuul is treated as sort of a throw-away Freddy Krueger, a mere prop to occasionally provide a jump scare or fill a few moments when the narrative has focused too long on actual characterization. Still, director Cirian Foy and the cast — especially the most youthful members — work hard to make you believe they're in this for real, and the 8mm "snuff films" really do depict cruel and unusual torture. Many of the harsher criticisms of the movie may have some justification (the current incarnation of Roger Ebert wrote that "Sinister 2 is so close to being a good movie that everything bad about it seems ten times worse.") but there's far more right about the film than it's generally given credit for.

Three out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
"I'm burnin', I'm burnin', I'm burnin' for you."
Nerd, meet the ex-deputy. Professor Stomberg (Tate Ellington) and Ex-Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone)
The ghostly Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), a not-at-all nice boy
"Don't turn around, oh-oh-oh. Der Kommissar's in town, oh-oh-oh!"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Sinister Menace

Sinister (2012) could easily join the ranks of movies I consider required viewing for the Halloween season, as it has all the proper elements: an obsessed, driven author attempting to connect a string of gruesome murders for a proposed true-crime novel; an abundance of unsettling imagery; an eerie soundtrack; and a creepy, memorable supernatural menace.

Ethan Hawke plays best-selling crime author Ellison Oswalt, who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants had been hanged from a tree in the backyard — a crime still unsolved — in hopes of using the murders as the subject of a new book. Shortly after moving in, he finds in the house's attic a box of 8mm film reels, which initially appear to be only a collection of old home movies. However, upon viewing them, he discovers that the films depict a numbers of families being killed in various horrifying ways, by party or parties unknown. With the assistance of an enthusiastic young sheriff's deputy, whom he calls "Deputy So-and-So" (James Ransone), he discovers that these murders took place over a number of years — dating back to the 1960s — and that one child from each murdered family had gone missing. Furthermore, each family had at some point lived in the same house as the previous victims.

On the inside lid of the box containing the film reels, Oswalt finds drawings rendered in a childish hand that clearly illustrate the murders, all appearing to be overseen by a figure labeled "Mr. Boogie." And once he re-examines the films, he discovers that there is indeed a sinister, pale-faced character lurking at the scene of each murder. Also left behind at the murder scenes is an odd, stylized symbol, painted in blood. Hoping to determine the meaning of the symbol, he contacts occult expert Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio), who concludes the murders are ritualistic, the ubiquitous symbol implicating an obscure, ancient Sumerian deity named Bughuul, who was known for "eating the souls" of children.

As he delves deeper into this mystery, Oswalt's wife Tracy (Juliette Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) become increasingly distraught by his obsession and beg him to take them back to their previous home. He stubbornly refuses — until the entity Bughuul physically manifests itself to him. Realizing now that he may have drawn his own family into an unimaginable, supernatural horror, he relents, burns all the film reels, and retreats with his wife and children to their old home.

However, just when it seems life might return to normal, Oswalt discovers in his attic a new box of film reels and an envelope labeled "extended cut endings." It is only now that the horror truly begins....
# # #

Sinister succeeds largely due to its dark atmosphere, relatively slow reveal of the supernatural menace (Vincent D'Onofrio's character does not appear until about midway through the picture), and genuinely chilling imagery. While the various murders might be brutal, some shown in graphic detail, there is yet a sense of suggested rather than gratuitous violence. Best of all, the entity Bughuul — a.k.a. "Mr. Boogie" — remains ever mysterious, usually glimpsed quickly or, in the case of lingering close-ups, with features half-hidden by shadows. The fictional backstory of Bughuul being a Sumerian deity, who lured children to his domain so he could eat their souls, brings a distinctly supernatural presence to a narrative structured, at least in the beginning, more like a true-crime drama.

Screenwriters Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson fabricated an appealing origin for Bughuul, only partially revealed in the film, portraying him as the brother of the Canaanite god Moloch, to whom children were also sacrificed. Bughuul uses drawn symbols or images — in this case the children's artwork — as gateways from its dimension to ours, always leaving behind its rune-like symbol at the scene of its predations.

As is the tendency for most contemporary horror movies, a few unnecessary jump scares mar the suspense, but overall, the film employs nighttime settings, suggestive shadows, and the eerie musical score by prolific composer Christopher Young to unsettling effect. One of the best uses of music is a repetitive, synthesized grinding sound, simulating the sound of movie projector spindles turning after the film has run out, overlaid with distorted children's voices.

The character story is reasonably engaging, with Ethan Hawke convincing as a skeptical but dedicated investigator who slowly becomes aware that his research subject is anything but prosaic. Some critics have argued that his actions aren't logical, that a real human being wouldn't continue to delve more deeply into the realm he's discovered once its actual dangers become clear. I would disagree, particularly being a sometimes obsessive-compulsive writer-type individual. Author Oswalt, shown early on as pragmatic but driven to recapture the success of his earlier novel, becomes ensnared by images and sensations he experiences but doesn't dare believe. He clings stubbornly to reason, to the little voice that says, "no matter what you think you see, it simply can't be that, the world doesn't work that way." I think many of us are wired the same way, particularly those of us who are agnostic or atheistic, and might likely react perhaps just as "recklessly."

Oswalt's wife Tracy serves mostly as a prop, neither her personality nor her actions doing much to propel the story, though she does come across as "real," reacting to and influencing her husband's decisions based on her all-too-accurate intuition about the events overtaking them. Their son Trevor suffers chronic night horrors (an affliction I also suffered to some limited extent in my younger days), but he, too, is a two-dimensional character, and unfortunately more annoying than sympathetic. However, their daughter Ashley, a budding young artist with an engaging personality, well-portrayed by Clare Foley, plays a more critical role than is initially evident, bringing both pathos and chilling horror to the climax.

Actor/Senator Fred Dalton Thompson has a small, entertaining role as the local sheriff, but his deputy plays a much bigger part in the story, becoming both assistant and confidant to Oswalt during his investigation, though the author amusingly refers to him only as "Deputy So-and-So."

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Sinister's grim atmosphere, slow but deliberate pacing, and chilling imagery make it one of those rare movies involving the supernatural that actually has the power to disturb. The climax possesses a certain dark beauty, directed like a dance, with music playing a crucial part of its composition, leaving me with a genuine haunted feeling. As I mentioned early on, the film makes for excellent Halloween fare, and I suspect it will be appear frequently on my regular autumn film menu.

Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.

The brutal murder that begins the chain of events for writer Ellison Oswalt
Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is horrified by the images revealed in what he took to be old home movies.
A frame blow-up from one of the film reels reveals the face of "Mr. Boogie."
The sign of Bughuul, painted in blood, left behind at the site of each of the murders