Sinister 2 opens today (Friday 21, 2015) and I do not have high hopes for it—which is not a result of my less-than-positive feelings about the first film, released in 2012 and directed by Scott Derrickson. In fact, I think Sinister is a great horror film (in my top ten for 2012), and I disagree with the lukewarm response it earned from critics (only a 62% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Indeed, my low expectations for Sinister 2 come precisely from my sense of how good Sinister is.
Sinister is about a true-crime writer, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), who moves to the site of a horrendous murder—the owners and two of their three children were hung from the tree in their back-yard and their third child disappeared—in hopes of writing his next best-selling book. He discovers a case of film reels that detail other family murders spanning from the 60s to the 90s, and as he tracks down connections among the killings, he starts to experience strange things in his new house.
Sinister is, not least, a supernatural film that recognizes how important it is that supernatural/demonic entities say something about their characters, that there is a psychological logic behind the “haunting.” Hawke plays the flawed protagonist adeptly, with shades of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) from The Shining (1980). He’s a washed-up true-crime writer who drinks a lot, drags his family to live at the scene of a horrendous crime (without telling them!), and seems obsessed with fame. In public interviews, he seems rather blatantly to lie about what’s most important to him—saying he’d choose justice over celebrity, when we know celebrity is what really matters to him.
In one brilliant moment in the film, Ellison opens a drawer in his study and we see a row of VHS tapes documenting his many TV interviews in the wake of his first and most successful book. These tapes parallel the box of film reels showing the family murders, a parallel that economically demonstrates that, for Ellison, there’s something irreconcilable about his need to write, his drive for success, and his family: the former may well demand the “death” of the latter.
Ellison’s obsessive desire for fame and money comes back at him in a horrifying way when his daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) tells him near the film’s end: “Don’t worry daddy. I’ll make you famous again.” To say more would be to give away too much of the film’s ending, but let’s just say Ashley’s words are both true and not exactly what Ellison wanted. The upshot is, though, that from beginning to end we feel that Ellison has to some degree brought his fate on himself. There’s a logic to the demonic manifestations that gives the film a psychological richness. Not all supernatural/possession films take heed of this lesson, and always to their detriment.
One of the best things about Sinister, though, is that it recognizes films are always better, are horrifying on a deeper level, when they offer some sort of message, when they say something about our real (non-haunted) world. Sinister contains a message about our contemporary immersion in media images.
The boogeyman of Sinister is a pagan deity called “Bughuul,” who is explained to us by “expert” on the occult, Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio). The most interesting part of the mythology of Bughuul is that he lives in images. Images are “gateways into his realm,” Jonas says. Bughuul takes “possession of those who saw the images and cause them to do terrible things,” he continues. “In some cases he could even abduct the viewer into the image itself.”
That Bughuul possesses people through the image seems particularly important—because Sinister is replete with images of all kinds: Ashley paints; Ellison finds child-like drawings of the murders that replicate the home movies; Ellison edits the 8mm film and exports it to hard drive, populating his laptop with images of the murders (and of Bughuul, always buried in the frame); and then Jonas sends Ellison scanned ancient images of Bughuul. In short, this film seems to be saying something about the image. Indeed, I’m not sure we ever see Bughuul outside of the image.
As a crime writer, Ellison not only pores over the images (film and photographs) of crime scenes, but he verbally re-creates them: he is awash in images of crime, watching them and creating them. The film thus asks whether his books may be one of the “gateways” by which “Bughuul” (evil) reaches into our world, by which he accrues more and more influence.
Sinister also comments on the persistence of the image. Ellison can’t burn the home movies, and his effort to consign the videos on his computer to the “trash” icon seem ridiculously futile, all of which speaks to the permanence of information on the internet: even when you try to erase something, you can’t. “Bughuul” (the evil that haunts images) has increasing strength in the digital era.
Sinister also seems to say something about the effects of violent media on children in particular. Jonas tells Ellison that “Children exposed to the images were especially vulnerable to Bughuul’s possession and/or abduction.” And near the end of the film, Ashley tells her dad, after he’s edited and watched the “extended cuts,” “I liked that you made the movies longer; they’re better this way.” It’s telling that Ashley says that “you” (Ellison) made the movies longer—as if he was responsible for them somehow (which, as a writer of violence, maybe he was). Sinister stands as a story, then, about children getting figuratively “abducted” by the horrific images/media around them—images created by adults who end up reaping what they sow.