One Scare Too Many: ‘Sinister 2,’ ‘Paranormal Activity,’ and the Impossibility of Horror SequelsBlumhouse
Has Bughuul haunted you? Introduced in the 2012 movie Sinister, the heavy metal headbanger-resembling demon is perhaps the closest thing the mainstream has had to a new millennial horror icon. As conceived by Sinister cowriters Scott Derrickson and Ain’t It Cool News blogger turned screenwriter and author C. Robert Cargill, Bughuul is an ancient deity only seen in glimpses throughout the film, which Derrickson also directed. But while Bughuul is barely seen, he stalks the film’s edges, claiming children’s souls and compelling them to brutally murder their families and record the slaughter via grainy Super 8 camera stock.
This weekend, Bughuul is back in Sinister 2, the inevitable sequel pushed into release by the producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions, the wildly successful company that gives filmmakers total freedom to make low-budget horror movies like the Paranormal Activity films, the Insidious trilogy, and the Purge series. Sinister 2 is once again cowritten by Derrickson and Cargill, but there’s a new director: Irish upstart Ciarán Foy, whose sole previous credit is the underrated agoraphobia-laced horror film Citadel. Like any good horror icon, Bughuul is being groomed as the anchor in a lucrative and ongoing franchise. And if Sinister 2 connects with audiences like its predecessor, which made $78 million on a reported $3 million budget, Derrickson will be eager to produce further nightmarish scenarios for his prized demon. (Though he’ll need to work around his next directorial assignment, Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the dark-arts-practicing superhero.)
But Derrickson, a lifelong horror buff, hasn’t quite figured out what Sinister 3 would entail if it’s green-lit. He does know exactly what he doesn’t want for Bughuul’s future. Bughuul, the horror icon? Sure. Bughuul, the next Jason Voorhees? Not so much.
“The most famous horror sequels are slasher movie sequels, and I’m just not a big fan of that many slasher movie sequels,” Derrickson says. “For Sinister 2, Cargill and I talked about some of the classic slasher franchises and tried to figure why some have worked while others haven’t worked. Most of them don’t hold up as individual films. Our goal was to pay attention to Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, which do have a few good sequels mixed into their larger number of inferior sequels — but their sequels mostly give you too much of the same thing over and over again.”
For Sinister 2, Derrickson and Cargill shifted the perspective. In Sinister, Ethan Hawke’s character, Ellison Oswalt, finds a box of old film reels in his new home’s attic; as he slowly uncovers Bughuul’s murderous legacy, the audience watches five hard-core and inventive “kill films” along with him, all of which are filmed by little kids as the tykes off their family in outlandishly grotesque ways. In Sinister 2, the POV switches to a child being seduced by Bughuul. It’s a clever move, expanding Bughuul’s mythology without committing the fatal mistake to which most horror sequels gradually succumb: giving the big bad an overly revealing backstory. The enigmatic Michael Myers is so impenetrable, spectral, and terrifying in John Carpenter’s Halloween that he’s dubbed “The Shape.” Not so for the Michael Myers who goes on a blood-drenched murder spree in order to reunite with his long-lost sister in the Carpenter-free Halloween 2.
“We definitely never wanted Bughuul or his origins to become a point of interest for the characters, let alone the audience,” Derrickson says. “With a supernatural villain like Bughuul, the only thing that you really have is that he’s cool-looking and he’s mysterious. To protect that mystery, we held to the plan of not saying too much more about him, and, like the first one, not see him that often in this movie. Let him be a terrifying presence within the movie rather than the subject of the movie. There have been too many horror sequels where the monster or villain’s shown and explained so much that it’s no longer scary. The discomforting mystery’s gone.”
Derrickson learned that lesson firsthand in 2000, when he nobly but unsuccessfully tried to revive the Hellraiser franchise. At the time, his experience boiled down to a cowriting credit on the dismissed slasher sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut. After that unpleasant experience, in which his and cowriter Paul Harris Boardman’s “really cool” original script went through numerous alterations beyond their control, Derrickson gave the sequel game another shot by signing on to direct Hellraiser: Inferno. Derrickson was expected to reanimate Clive Barker’s S&M-tinged, fantastical body horror institution, which had been kick-started by the 1987 classic Hellraiser and then punished by its sequels. Inferno was the franchise’s fifth entry and, ultimately, its first direct-to-video release.
Derrickson’s plan was to rectify the previous three Hellraiser sequels’ various screwups by grounding Inferno in a restrained, neo-noir aesthetic. But the damage had been done. Following the first Hellraiser, which Barker both wrote and directed, he took a hands-off approach to the franchise’s evolution. Subsequently, each of the Hellraiser films leading up to and including Inferno had different producers, corrupting the continuity and bungling the mythology. The franchise devolved into an otherworldly kitchen overrun by too many cooks who couldn’t tell a Cenobite from a centipede, rendering Pinhead uninteresting and, worse, unscary. Derrickson never stood a chance.
“At that point in the franchise, the Hellraiser movies and their mythology had made too many terrible turns in demystifying the Pinhead character,” Derrickson says. “He’s such an enigmatic, fascinating, harrowing figure in the first film, but by the time we got to the fourth film, he’d lost all of that power and mystery.”
Made for a scant $1 million, Barker’s Hellraiser grossed $14 million, giving its distributor, New World Pictures, 14,000,000 reasons to keep Pinhead’s universe alive, but not enough to keep Barker behind the camera or in the writer’s chair. “It makes you wish that Clive Barker would’ve either overseen the entire franchise,”1 laments Derrickson, “or just prevented the sequels from ever happening.”
By their nature, horror movies are cinema’s least sequel-friendly genre.
What’s scary once is rarely scary twice, whether a terrifying film’s villain is seen or not. Horror historians are still trying to discern what the hell happened with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the 2000 follow-up to the record-breaking found-footage smash The Blair Witch Project. Since there’s no actual witch shown in codirectors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s original 1999 film, Book of Shadows filmmaker Joe Berlinger — the documentarian behind the Paradise Lost films — abandoned the supernatural altogether and tried mining psychological hysteria from a convoluted story about Blair Witch fans who lose their minds. Berlinger’s efforts were admirable, but also disastrously ill-advised. The Blair Witch Project earned $250 million on a $60,000 budget — Book of Shadows cost $15 million and scraped its way to just $47 million.
Another attempt at horror-franchise-launching imploded five years later, when The Ring Two proved to be worth about as much as a busted VHS tape in a used video store. It’s also the anti–Sinister 2. Derrickson and the over-abused Pinhead would surely feel sympathy for Samara, the pint-sized and royally pissed-off ghost at the center of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring. Verbinski’s film is a remake of Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata’s remarkable 1998 heart-stopper Ringu. Released in 2002, it achieved the seemingly impossible feat of Americanizing a beloved foreign horror gem in ways that many deem superior to Nakata’s film. The Ring racked up $250 million; more importantly, Verbinski keeps Samara largely offscreen until The Ring’s nightmare-fueling climax. Motivated by the film’s profits, its distributor, Dreamworks Pictures, became overzealous. Nakata was called upon to direct a sequel, but unlike Verbinski, he misjudged Samara’s appeal and turned the once-enigmatic presence into a slasher-like killer with nearly as much onscreen time as star Naomi Watts. The first movie’s fans weren’t impressed — The Ring Two earned a little over half of The Ring’s gross.
It’s easy to see why audiences rejected Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and The Ring Two. Instead of giving ticket-buyers more of what they loved about the first films, the sequel-makers went too far left. The most successful horror franchises over the last 15 years have done the opposite — remaining firmly in the center, zigzagging ever so slightly tonally, but never wholly rebooting.
If a franchise’s producers and screenwriters aren’t simply trying to ape what made their best productions creatively triumphant, they’re doing something that’s far more ambitious but no less risky, and it’s what Derrickson and Team Sinister is attempting with their follow-up: developing a core mythology with information and origins parceled out film by film.
There are lessons in the Saw franchise, which started with a pair of craftily linked films, James Wan’s 2003 original and he and returning writer Leigh Whannell’s better-than-you-remember Saw II (2004), but then sank into a pit of random character connections, plot threads pulled out of Jigsaw’s ass, and disposable new “heroes” over the course of six increasingly bad sequels. After seven consecutive Octobers with a Saw installment (not to mention nearly $900 million in box office receipts), Lionsgate shuttered the franchise after 2010’s Saw 3D. The studio reaped a windfall, but did anyone care about these movies?
If Sinister makes it to a third film and beyond, Derrickson certainly doesn’t plan on emulating the Saw franchise. His template will come directly from the franchise that dethroned Saw as horror’s reigning mainstream champion in 2009.
“The tendency of horror sequels is to either branch out into other areas that are so unrelated to the first one, or to expand the villainous character in such a way that you lose all the mystery and a lot of what made the first one interesting in the first place,” Derrickson says. “A good example of a franchise with smart sequels is Paranormal Activity. They expand your view, but they’re expanding your view of the same thing. They’re keeping you within the same universe and mythology while only altering the point-of-view with each film.”
Launched by a minuscule $15,000 movie, the Paranormal Activity series — now five movies deep (with a sixth opening in October) — is Hollywood’s least likely franchise. The first movie, written and directed by unknown novice Oren Peli, shows, via bedroom and living room cameras, a demon terrorizing young lovers Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). Peli made the film with personal video equipment, sweat, and duct tape in 2007, before catching the attention of Steven Spielberg and then-burgeoning producer Jason Blum, who brought the film to Paramount Pictures.
In early 2010, three weeks before Paranormal Activity 2 was scheduled to begin production, Blum & Co. brought in screenwriter Christopher Landon to rewrite the problematic original script. The son of the late Little House on the Prairie actor Michael Landon had previously written two studio-backed 2007 genre films, the forgettable, pre-Twilight werewolf romance Blood and Chocolate and, more successfully, Paramount’s Shia LaBeouf–led, Rear Window–for–teens sleeper hit Disturbia.
Since Peli hadn’t even thought about Paranormal Activity as more than a one-off passion project, Landon was able to construct an actual mythology behind the first movie’s barebones story. He’s the mind behind the coven of witches that’s hinted at in Paranormal Activity 2 and centralized in Paranormal Activity 3. “The coven allowed for us to create a history,” Landon says. “A demon doesn’t really need an origin, whereas a coven had to start somewhere with someone. That gave us a lot more story than we otherwise would’ve had.” Landon is also the person who came up with the franchise’s invisibly looming demon, “Toby,” which he named after his neighbor’s lovable chocolate Labrador.
And just like that, the Paranormal Activity franchise had its storytelling engine. Landon settled into the role of a kind of showrunner, steering the mythology.
In 2012, The House That Oren Peli Built nearly collapsed.
Paranormal Activity 4 is a cautionary tale for all genre franchise overseers. While the first two sequels were dominating box offices, Paramount noticed that Latino audiences comprised a large segment of the franchise’s ticket-buyers. The studio planned to make a fourth movie alongside a spinoff directly aimed at Latin American audiences, releasing both films within three months of each other. Landon was assigned to write and direct the spinoff, The Marked Ones, in 2011; Chad Feehan, a producer on the indie slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, was hired to write Paranormal Activity 4.
Per discussions that Landon wasn’t a part of for the first time since Paranormal Activity 2’s conception, the franchise’s creative team settled on a story about a family in 2006 whose teenage daughter suspects that her new neighbors, a mysterious woman and her young son, Robbie, are up to no good. The little boy was designed as a possible connection to Paranormal Activity 2, which ends with character Kristi’s son, Hunter, being abducted by her demonically possessed sister, Katie, in what’s ultimately a surprise prequel to Peli’s film. Is Robbie actually Hunter?
The question Paranormal Activity 4’s team quickly asked themselves, however, was, “Who gives a damn about Robbie?” Desperate for help, and only a few weeks away from the production’s start date, the producers called Landon, had him stop work on The Marked Ones, and asked him to transform into Captain Save-A-Script. “The problem with Paranormal Activity 4 is that I wasn’t involved with the creation of the story, and I didn’t like the story they’d come up with,” Landon says. “Having to fix a script that you genuinely don’t like in the first place is a tricky thing to deal with. I was in a situation where I had to kind of make do with what I had. They handed me these parameters and just said, ‘OK, go and fix this.’ I tried to make some sense of it. But it never clicked.”
During their “think tank” meetings for Paranormal Activitys 2 and 4, Landon and executive producer Akiva Goldsman vowed to make sure every plot thread had a direct connection to Toby, the coven, and their ultimate endgame — whether visibly clear or undetectably subtle. In Robbie, they’d betrayed that rule. “Robbie didn’t really connect to anything,” Landon says. “He was meant to be this massive misdirect, but it went on for so long.”
“Everyone involved did the best we could given the circumstances, but it was a stumble,” he adds. “We all felt it, and we were all bummed out.”
Set for release on October 23, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is evidence that the franchise’s brain trust knows what’s good for them. Somewhat miraculously, Landon rescued the enterprise with last year’s The Marked Ones, a spirited return to form that adheres closely to Paranormal Activity 3, namely its two-dimensional characters, tightly executed scares, and general abundance of, well, things actually happening, a rarity in most found-footage movies.
Blum and his colleagues are smartly closing the doors with The Ghost Dimension, allowing horror’s biggest series to go out more like Breaking Bad than, say, Dexter. In a June interview with the horror website Shock Till You Drop, Blum said, “I think it’s kind of a bold thing, and it’s very unusual. Most horror franchises never do that. … What I’m most excited about around this movie is coming right out saying, ‘This is it. This is the last one.’ We’re going to show you Toby. We’re going to show you why Toby does what we does. We’re going to explain all the questions that you’ve had.” The Ghost Dimension’s poster’s tagline reads like a my-bad apology of sorts: “For the first time you will see the activity.”
In Sinister 2, “seeing the activity” equals “being assaulted by brutal imagery” — in one of the “kill films,” a mother, father, and two kids’ heads are chomped off by gators. But should Bughuul’s reign of child-assisted terror eye a five-to-six-movie run, à la Derrickson’s beloved Paranormal Activity franchise?
Derrickson can’t call it yet, but he says he won’t commit the sins of horror sequels past. “We honestly haven’t thought about any kind of endgame yet,” he says. “There’s no real point in doing that until we see if audiences like how we handled the second movie. I’m hoping they’ll appreciate how we’re not going too far off the creative deep end, though.
“Ultimately, I just want to make sure that someone who pays his or her hard-earned money doesn’t feel betrayed.”
Matt Barone (@MBarone) is an editor at TribecaFilm.com and has written for Wired, Rolling Stone, The Dissolve, Complex, Birth.Movies.Death and Shock Till You Drop. He lives in New Jersey.