Horror’s newest anti-hero, Bughuul (Nicholas King), is back, and he’s got more screen time than when horror audiences first met him in 2012’s “Sinister.” There, he was a briefly glimpsed apparition, a fleeting and genuinely unsettling presence, instigating an inexorable descent into doom for true-crime author Ethan Hawke and his family.
In this sequel, Bughuul is fully visible, and we can count the buttons on his funereal black suit. For the sake of branding that spurs action-figure sales, this probably makes good sense. But for the sake of horror, it’s a case of familiarity breeding boredom.
“Sinister” succeeded on the strength of skillful appropriation of horror tropes, twisted into fresh, ugly shapes. Hawke’s character, in order to method-write his latest book about the unsolved murder of an entire family, moved his own wife and kids into the very house where it all happened.
He did so without telling them, of course. Signs that they should leave immediately — ignored, naturally — included his uncovering a box of 8mm “home movies,” each reel depicting increasingly disturbing murders of entire families, destroyed in horrifically graphic ways. Floating in the deep background of these images: Bughuul, unexplained, a corpse-painted face reminiscent of any number of black metal band members, a monster able to exert a mysterious hold on the children he drafted into doing his bidding.
“Sinister 2” places worried mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) in a similar site of destruction, an isolated home located next to an abandoned church where a ritual murder occurred. She’s hiding out, on the run from an abusive ex with her two sons (real-life brothers Robert and Dartanian Sloan) in tow. This time even the kids know about the satanic ritual slaying that took place mere yards from their creaky-closet-door-ridden bedrooms, but nobody seems too worried about it.
Enter Ex Deputy So & So (James Ransone, reprising his role from the first film), the former cop who failed to prevent the first round of death, now a private investigator. He wants to break the Bughuul murder cycle, and if the cold sweat of his anxiety could do the trick, the film would be over the minute he arrives on screen.
Part of the sick pleasure of the first “Sinister” was its deep dive into horror’s gnarliest paradox, the one that involves the audience knowing that the victims are at least partially complicit in their own demise, due to malice or stupidity. This allows for a response that is equal parts hope for characters to successfully run for their lives, and not-so-secret delight when they’re caught by the killer. Heads should literally roll so that we, in turn, can be simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by what we see, and by the pleasure we take in witnessing it.
“Sinister 2” fails to inspire this sort of friction. Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote and directed the original, returns with partner C. Robert Cargill, and their screenplay exchanges the first installment’s suffocating dread for what amounts to needless stuffing and fear-draining explanations.
Taking over for Derrickson in the director’s chair is Ciarán Foy, whose debut feature, “Citadel,” also employed a gang of evil children. His sense of just how heavy horror’s darkness should feel makes that dark house and death-church just the right spots for another batch of slayings. But when the sun rises, that fear evaporates and the film sits around waiting for bedtime, while some fairly dull adults forget the terror of last night’s haunting.
Not helping matters is the new batch of 8mm home murder movies, the gory meat, as it were, of the franchise’s appeal. Visual stakes are heightened here, to an absurd, laugh-inspiring degree, the deaths sliding into the realm of “Saw”-style ridiculousness. You don’t close your eyes from the shock; you’re too busy giggling.
But back to Bughuul. The task of sustaining franchise-building interest in this story lives or dies with him, and his personality deficiencies are showing. When the killer is a literal supernatural monster, the trick is to deepen that creature’s mythology while retaining its mystery, to keep the star from turning into a camp object. (See also: Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees).
It’s a tightrope walk; we want to cheer for the phantom to continue destroying human bodies, but not so exuberantly that he becomes the cuddly Groot of serial-slaughter. If, in “Sinister 3,” Bughuul opens his mouth and out comes a Krueger-style wisecrack, the experiment will have failed for good.