About halfway into Sinister 2, there’s a scene in which two lonely people share a drink on the porch of a country house late at night. One (Shannyn Sossamon) is a young mother who recently fled her possessive, abusive husband. The other (James Ransone) is a former deputy sheriff who lost his job after he was falsely accused of a horrific crime. He’s since become a private detective, and his most recent investigation led him to the abandoned farmhouse where the mother is temporarily living with her twin boys. He happened to be looking around just when the woman’s husband showed up, state troopers in tow, to take the boys away—wielding his knowledge of the law, the former deputy explained that the father had no claim to the children, and this got him to leave. The mother, grateful for the stranger’s intervention, invited him to dinner and then to spend the night, saying that she and the boys feel safe in his presence. It’s after the boys go to bed that the adults have that drink together. Finally relaxed after the events of the day, they confide in each other about their disappointments in life.
Sossamon and Ransone are very good in this scene, projecting tenderness and vulnerability and establishing a nice chemistry together. Their interplay is so natural—and their characterizations rooted in such believable emotional pain—that one might temporarily forget that Sinister 2 is a supernatural horror movie. Ransone’s investigation probes a series of bizarre deaths caused by a demon who takes possession of children. He ventured to the farm because he believes the demon is currently dwelling there. (A multiple murder had taken place on the property some time before, in an unfinished church that sits next to the house.) If Ransone hadn’t found living souls in the house, he would have burned it to the ground, in hopes of eradicating the demon. The former deputy now considers it his duty to rid the world of its presence, since he was unable to prevent it from killing the family he met in the first Sinister.
Ransone’s regret mirrors Sossamon’s guilt at being unable to stop her husband from beating her children. As in the recent Oculus—another effective horror film from Blumhouse Productions—the supernatural horror gains thematic resonance by paralleling a more earthbound horror. One might interpret the demon that Ransone’s chasing as a metaphor for domestic violence—it destroys families and haunts whomever survives it. And just as abused children sometimes grow up to be abusers themselves, so too does the demon turn children into monsters. The big shocks of Sinister 2 come in the form of old home movies that document the demon’s work—all of them feature children killing their parents and siblings in gruesome ways. (Shot on 8-millimeter and scored to tinny recordings of a child’s piano, they suggest the influence of certain experimental films.)
However frightening these sequences are, the film’s most resonant passages are the quieter ones, which evoke the experience of living with trauma. Director Ciarán Foy creates atmospheres that feel more lonely than spooky, employing dim lighting and lots of dust. The farmhouse, the motel where Ransone rents a room, and the professor’s office he visits late in the film all look like Edward Hopper paintings—they seem designed to match the protagonists’ wounded emotional states. Early in Sinister 2 Foy makes strong use of a small-town grocery store, turning the banal environment into the scene of a nightmare when Sossamon spots a strange man whom she suspects is a spy for her husband. Whereas the demon’s influence is restricted to the area around the farmhouse, the husband can get at his wife and children pretty much anywhere, forcing Sossamon to be on guard for most of the film. That late-night heart-to-heart at the movie’s midpoint represents a welcome reprieve from her terror—and it so succeeds at putting viewers at ease that the next scare comes as a genuine jolt.