Thursday, August 10, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

I liked The Conjuring, and I mostly like The Conjuring 2. While their jump scares are a bit predictable, they generally create a good, spooky, disturbing atmosphere mixed with entertaining ghost-hunting pseudoscience (and pseudotech), and the two leads are very watchable and likeable. The Annabelle spinoff/prequel was complete schlock crap, but I didn't expect it to be anything else, and regardless, well, let's just say I didn't exactly spend a great deal of money to watch it, if you catch my drift. I wasn't exactly taken with the idea of another film, a prequel to the prequel, but when I heard it was getting decent reviews, I thought "Why not?"

Annabelle: Creation feels like a few things. Firstly it feels like a film which, way back at some point in the development process, was meant to subvert some of the recurring elements of the Conjuring franchise and some clichés of modern horror films. The reason I say "way back", however, is because it also feels like a film which was rewritten by a Hollywood hack at some point. It thirdly feels, with two overt links to other films, one already made and one forthcoming, as another desperate attempt on the part of Warner Bros. to establish a "cinematic universe" surrounding, I suppose, the demons featured in the Conjuring films.

The ever-credible Wikipedia informs me that director David F. Sandberg, filmmaker of Lights Out, took a less meticulously-storyboarded approach to this film, instead opting for a "figure it out on the set" one. I believe this is PR speak for "Warner Bros. and New Line didn't give me enough time and money to make this properly." This shows, as while Lights Out is hardly a masterpiece, it perhaps still has threads of Sandberg's YouTube viral-video auteurship in it, while Annabelle: Creation simply feels botched, like the half-made dolls in the eponymous character's father's workshop.

Annabelle: Creation's strongest moments almost entirely occur in its first half, seemingly before the scripting or editing process, or both, collapsed. While the premise of a group of vulnerable girls and resident nun being sent to live in a somewhat spooky house out in the country is hardly original, the film appears to be possibly doing something vaguely interesting with Janice and Linda, two orphans hoping to become "real sisters" if they are adopted by the same couple. This follows a fairly engrossing prologue in which the titular Annabelle, innocent originator of the notes the doll would come to drop, is abruptly hit by a car.

The problem is that this feeling of engagement starts to fall apart when Janice, predictably, makes not one but repeated trips to the dead girl's bedroom, almost as if she's a robot programmed to seek out horror scenes. You'd think after having one spooky experience in there, as well as finding the creepy doll, she'd tell that bedroom where to shove it, forcing the demon to get a bit more creative, but that doesn't happen, and virtually the rest of the film becomes a series of endless lead-ups to Janice or, later, Linda, making sojourns to the late Annabelle's bedroom just to get spooked again. I was finding the film reasonably enjoyable up until the point at which, on Janice's second or third trip to the room, she witnesses what appears to be an apparition of the dead girl. However, as we later discover, it's just a demon pretending, and when Janice asks what she wants, she abruptly turns around, adopts the yellow-eyed fanged horror face that every Conjuring demon has, and proclaims "Your soul!" I was staggered at how unbelievably stock, generic and cliché this moment was, especially in contrast to promise shown to that point, and from this moment the film started to fail.

In this regard the film is infected with innumerable clichés once it loses its drive, especially ones which make the Conjuring franchise as a whole seem repetitive and stale: demons levitating people, demons telekinetically throwing furniture around, the ancient trick of flickering lightbulbs and of course, a more modern favourite, fleeing people being tripped and dragged by the ankles back the way they came by an unseen force. The glimpses we get of the demon itself show something appallingly generic, just a charcoal-skinned hornéd beastie let loose from a medieval woodcut. Janice also gets trapped, frightened and subsequently possessed in a manner highly reminiscent of the original Paranormal Activity film, especially once she starts pretending she's fine when she obviously isn't. The barrage of these desperately unimaginative moments makes the film predictable and, as a result, boring, surely the worst sin a horror film can commit.

What makes this so exasperating is that the film itself has some strong elements. As was the case with The Conjuring films, it gives a decent share of screen time to a relatively large cast of relatively talented young actors; Janice and Linda are particularly well cast, and their performances when they're still trying to figure out their situation are fairly believable and likeable. The biggest problem is when Janice is forced into the boring, routine "possession" role which basically just means she becomes a child-sized knife slasher with a creepy head tilt and waxy makeup. There is, however, some effective use of humour, particularly derived from Linda's behaviour: her willingness to leave Janice inside so she can go enjoy herself when Janice says she's fine, her quick departure to avoid chores in the schoolroom and, best of all, the cut from her declining to enter Annabelle's room (perhaps the only time anyone makes this sensible choice) to a shot of her guarding her own bedroom door against the fiend with a popgun she acquired earlier.

Yet none of this can compensate for what is perhaps the film's biggest failing, a huge problem with pacing and structure, which coalesces with the bombardment of horror clichés to make the viewing experience of the last half-hour or so of the film tedious to the point of absurdity. Miranda Otto, out for a quick buck, is forced to deliver an extremely clunky exposition-dump immediately prior to her character being killed off, revealing the origin of the demon in their home in a way that was partially obvious or could have been guessed and partially could have been teased out through more gradual storytelling. This hurls what should be the start of the film's climax into a series of flashbacks. Furthermore, the film ends with an entirely unnecessary epilogue linking this film's events directly and explicitly to that of the previous Annabelle film, as if anyone cared or remembered, assuming they'd seen it at all. Footage is reused from early in that film to anticlimactically end this one. I also believe that this involves some torturous storytelling, as the original film simply said the doll was used by a demon after a cult ritual involving Annabelle, the neighbours' wayward daughter. Now "Annabelle" is actually a demon pretending to be a dead girl named Annabelle who possesses Janice who then calls herself Annabelle who is adopted by the neighbours in the first film and grows up to be the cultist, who then I think somehow puts the demon back into the doll, as if it would want to go back into the doll. Good grief.

The most egregious element, however, is a brief scene shoehorned into the first act (or so) of the film in which Sister Charlotte, the girls' guardian, shows Annabelle's father a photograph of herself with some other nuns, one of which is actually Valak, the demon from The Conjuring 2. This is obviously done not just as a reference but as a piece of promotion for 2018's upcoming "The Nun" film about the character, as the scene bears no other real relevance to the plot or characterisation of this film. It's clearly another pathetic attempt to rip off Disney/Marvel's successful, yet increasingly bland and soulless, "cinematic universe" method, as Warner Bros. already tried (and presumably has failed) to do with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Universal is apparently attempting with its dare-I-dignify-it-by-naming-it "Dark Universe" franchise. By this stage it is so transparent that all it accomplishes is making the surrounding film less immersive and damaging further any possibility of suspending disbelief. This is exacerbated by a moment in the epilogue when Janice-possessed-by-the-Annabelle-demon is given a Raggedy Ann doll, which is what the "real" Annabelle doll is. The wink to the know-alls (like me) in the audience is just distracting, and it only leaves me thinking that using a Raggedy Ann doll would actually have been a lot creepier, if done well, than the overdesigned doll of the films, which I can't imagine anyone from even the most twisted era of American nursery culture not finding grotesque.

Fair play to David F. Sandberg for making the transition from YouTube to Hollywood; his wife Lotta Losten, star of the original Lights Out short, makes a cameo in this, but unfortunately in the risible and exhausting epilogue sequence. That doesn't change the fact, however, that Annabelle: Creation is a film I shouldn't have allowed to disappoint me. Maybe someone who really cares could make a worthy fan edit of this, eliminating CGI demon-faces, multiple trips to Annabelle's bedroom, the epilogue and perhaps a sequence in which Linda, having laboriously descended the house in the dumbwaiter, then decides to make the entire journey to the top again in real time. The fact is, if more people had given a shit, this could have genuinely been a standout piece of franchise horror-schlock. It might, for instance, have used its premise to consider in some depth the crises of faith and hope of orphans and people in similar situations of limited emotional support. It might have used Janice and Linda's friendship to put a different spin on the 'lone girl getting menaced in a spooky room' concept. It could even have gone down more of a comedy route, mixing chills with gags for an experiment with a sine-wave of mood. It doesn't, however, yet people are still offering it praise. I simply don't understand why. To my mind, this is for Conjuring franchise completionists only, if indeed it's for anyone at all.

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