Killer Kids Double Feature Review: Cooties (2014) and Sinister 2 (2015)
The killer kids trope has long served as the go-to narrative device for whenever horror story tellers really want to disturb audiences. (Sure, monsters, ghost and maniacs can be scary, but precious little children? That's inconceivable!) Yet like any other trope, there are ways that it can be used for maximum effect and ways that devoid it of shock. The films I'll be looking at in this review, Cooties and Sinister 2, fall into the latter category but for very different reasons: one could not come up with enough material to support the trope, while the other laid out the trope so explicitly in its dialog that it lost any capacity to surprise or scare. Read on for my complete reviews (with spoilers ahead for those who have not seen the first Sinister movie).
Cooties has a simple premise: A poorly processed chicken nugget causes a zombie virus to spread among the prepubescent student body of a public school, and it's up to the surviving faculty members to find a way out of their heavily infected hall of learning. Cooties never takes its goofy plot seriously but it never finds its footing as a horror comedy either, so it winds up being an average zombie movie. It lacks the rabid energy of other zombie comedies such as Dead Alive and it fails to fully exploit the absurdity of the situation; these two shortcomings result in a series of jokes that occasionally connect but overwhelmingly fall flat. (Although as flicks with zombie kids go, Cooties is certainly better than Return of the Living Dead Part II.)
Watching Cooties sputter is a shame, because it has a talented cast that's game to play a set of deeply dysfunctional educators and special effects that live up to the film's splat-sticky ambitions. Yet it felt that filmmakers believed that their movie's central premise of kids-becoming-zombies-because-of-bad-school-cafeteria-food was enough to carry the humor for an entire film, and it isn't. Given all of the issues that public schools are faced with these days, Cooties could have squeezed plenty of satirical mileage out of its setting and characters. In fact, current public school-related issues such as childhood obesity and the anti-vaccination movement would be ripe subjects for a public school-based zombie comedy.
Sinister 2 centers on a single mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) and her young twin sons Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan) who take refuge in a rural house while on the run from an abusive husband. However, the house is connected to the demonic Bughuul, who seeks to add one of the sons to his flock of lost souls. James Ransone reprises his role from the previous film as the former police officer who knows about Bughuul's existence and is determined to end his killing spree.
Sinister is one of my favorite horror films from the last few years. That film and The Ring are also two of my favorite "found footage" movies (even though they aren't considered by many to be entries in the found footage subgenre of horror films). Unfortunately, both of these films share the same problem: Once the mystery behind the found footage is solved--who made the footage and why--there aren't many places left for the story to go. Sinister 2 shifts the story around to show how Bughuul asserts control over a child; unfortunately, the sequel squanders the possibilities that this idea provided by executing it so poorly.
The spirits of previously possessed children are the ones who begin the Bughuul recruitment process on the designated son; unfortunately, the dialog spoken by these kid spooks clearly state what they are doing--over and over and over again. This is one example of where the old adage of "show, don't tell" should have been sternly applied to script. Expository dialog in horror movies should either flesh out the backgrounds of characters (e.g., Quint's U.S.S. Indianapolis speech in Jaws) or introduce concepts that come into play later in the film (e.g., the dialog about Rustin Parr in The Blair Witch Project). In contrast, the expository dialog spoken by the ghosts removes all of the surprises from Sinister 2, thus draining the sequel of all tension and fear. It even spoils a mid-story twist that could have provided the sequel with a much needed jolt to propel it forward to its grisly conclusion.
Another drawback to Sinister 2 is in how it handles the super 8 snuff films. In the first film, the lead character Ellison Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) watches the films as part of his research for a true crime book, so he has a reason to keep watching the films regardless of how gruesome they get. Oswalt's macabre voyeurism becomes our own when we watch him watch the snuff films, which in turn adds to the chilling vibe of Sinister. The crew behind Sinister 2 wanted to keep the mandatory snuff film viewings in as a plot device, but the way they do it feels like it's shoehorned in instead of being a natural extension of the story--it's much more of an overt callback to the previous film than a piece that fits within the context of the sequel.
I wanted to like Sinister 2 because it does have some interesting ideas in it (for example, we get to see what happens when the shooting of a Bughuul snuff film gets interrupted). It also has a talented cast and director Ciarán Foy does pull off some eerie, memorable shots. Unfortunately, none of this is enough to compensate for the sequel's many mistakes. My recommendation: avoid Sinister 2 but feel free to pick up the soundtrack, which is just as creepy as the music from the first film.