Thursday, August 10, 2017

Annabelle: Creation: The Damn Doll Doesn't Move; The Movie's Okay Though

Let me give you the quick run-down of the Annabelle storyline in films that have led up to this one. My job as a critic (shut up... I know I don't get paid) as well as a film lover allows me to already know this information you may not be privy to. The Annabelle doll first showed up in The Conjuring. She showed up in the first five minutes of the movie in order to establish some sort of backstory for our ghost-hunting heroes. She's creepy... she just sits there... and winds up doing nothing at all for the entire movie. There's even a lingering shot of her at the end of the film where she does... again, nothing. Then, some executive asshole decided she was creepy enough to warrant her own film. So, we got Annabelle the movie. The movie was a cheap, poorly written, executed even worse, teen PG-13 schlock that wasn't even good enough to call "so bad it's good". In the movie, the Annabelle doll does so much nothing one might start to think it's not the doll that's haunted, but you know, literally anything else. Finally, Annabelle apparently made enough money it warranted a prequel to a prequel. Yet, this time, they actually hired a capable horror director (David F. Sandberg who directed last year's underrated Lights Out), did away with all the cheap PG-13 scares, grew a nut or two, and went for Conjuring-style R rated horror. And while the film is leaps and bounds more superior than its predecessor, guess what the running theme is of the movie, however... the goddamn doll doesn't do anything!

Here's the deal with Annabelle: Creation... it didn't need to be an Annabelle movie. The plot, the characters, the circumstances all have very little to do with the fucking doll that I'm now convinced the doll has just become a useless MacGuffin that's more of an inside joke between the filmmakers who want to see how many movies they can make about a doll that's as active in this film as a deaf mute is into the grunge scene (is there still a grunge scene?). You have to imagine that screenwriter Gary Dauberman had to realize he had nothing to write about. He's got a blank word document up on his screen and his inner monologue is like: "The doll doesn't do anything... how the hell do I make a horror movie?" Well, he found a way around it which is a much better standalone horror movie about a demon than it ever will be as an Annabelle film. We start with dollmaker guy, his wife, and young daughter. He makes the doll after his daughter's likeness... she gets hit by a car and killed... they become creepy humans 12 years later. They have offered up their large house to an orphanage for young girls. The dollmaker wife has been in some sort of undisclosed accident and is bedridden. Dollmaker is now an old, bearded, creepy lurker who bustles about the house with a chip on his shoulder. This is where shit starts to get weird. Our hero orphans: girl with a Polio leg, and her bff, start hearing noises, seeing doors and dumbwaiters open on their own, until finally the inanimate doll Annabelle starts showing up in random places to do absolutely nothing.

Turns out, the doll is just a conduit for a real demon. Dollmaker and wife thought that their daughter was trying to reach them from the beyond, asks permission to enter the doll, and they grant it. However, it was just a demon pullin the old dead-daughter-fake-out on these guys so he can collect souls and rip out eyeballs and shit. If you got rid of the doll and kept the story the same (seriously, it doesn't even need a "conduit" since said conduit participates as much as a guy with no arms in a high-fiving competition) it would be a much better standalone horror movie. But, we know in 2017 that giving the okay on an original horror movie is much riskier (apparently) than slapping a known title to it and calling it a prequel. Writer Dauberman was very creative in working around the doll problem and what ends up happening is a whirlwind of seriously dumb ideas mixed with some actually terrifying moments. Seriously, the last 35-40 minutes of the movie makes up for most of the incompetence of the first hour. There's some good stuff here.

First of all, it improves nearly every aspect that the first Annabelle movie failed at. They went for the actual terror instead of cheap scares. Yes, there are still the jump scares that feel cheap (and kind of are), but they also went for terror and unease and intensity that'll send your gut up into your throat. If you can overlook the jump scares and wait for that last 35ish minutes of the movie, it's genuinely going to creep you the hell out. There's also some pretty good child actors in here. Polio leg girl astounded me because she was one of the few who didn't sound like she was reading her lines off of cue cards and her bff, who was also in last year's surprisingly okay Ouija prequel, is also very good. Director David F. Sandberg also seems to be working in the right direction as far as getting his feet wet in the genre. Lights Out was a very capable horror movie and he ups the ante here with this film. He's very focused on sound, as well as the absence of it. Generally, there's not a lot of music, instead he focuses on amplifying little noises like a footstep or a creak or bell ringing instead of sharp violin noises or fists pounding on piano keys. He also doesn't try to use gore as a crutch. Yes, it's an R rated movie, and yes there are a couple of shocking images involving blood, but it's mostly what you don't see that scares the piss right out of you. There is a lot of good working in the back end of this movie. And there is plenty here to get you good and scared.

However, there is a LOT of dumb shit also. Immediately I noticed that, once again, we apparently just cannot write dialogue in horror movies anymore. This is just an impossibility unless your name is James Wan (director of The Conjuring films). And then there are the jump scares. I understand that we need to set a tone somehow and audible screams to horror filmmakers are as gold as laughs are to comedians, but they're cheap and they feel cheap. I think what really got me though were the rules of the movie. There's this demon on the loose frightening a few of the kids. Not all of them... just a few. The demon can move an inanimate doll, open doors, appear out of nowhere... but in the middle of a showdown it can't handle a locked door. We also have no idea what the demon wants. There's one (very laughable) scene where the demon changes from a small child to a dark-faced, yellow-eyed demon alerting the child that he wants "YOUR SOUL"! But, for what reason... I have no idea. At one point the demon is possessing one of the girls, then also possessing a scarecrow and attacking the other girls, but also appearing as his actual demon-self to another girl. Like... were there three demons? Can it clone itself? What does it actually want? And why can't it open a locked door or figure out how to work the rope of a dumbwaiter? If you can figure out a way not to focus on these lingering plot holes and open questions, you'll enjoy the film. And I can't stress this enough: it does get better the more it goes on. About 45 minutes into the movie I was convinced it was just another average, run of the mill, horror spin off cash grab that wasn't going to provide any of the terror my ticket was paid for. But it eventually did and won me over.

Let's be clear, though... the horror of the movie won me over. I have not, nor will I ever be won over by the goddamn focus of the film being the stupid Annabelle doll which strikes as much fear into your heart as a pug dressed up as the Easter Bunny (are my analogies getting through?!). It's almost frustrating that the studio has started to invest a lot of interest in expanding the Conjuring universe instead of funding more films to become the next Conjuring itself. The Nun from The Conjuring 2 is getting her own film next year (there is even a direct reference to the Nun in this film), and a third Conjuring film is also on its way down the line. We know we can't put a stop to it (though I figured with how bad the first Annabelle film was, that was going to be it... little did I realize how many shits Hollywood does not give when it comes to expanded universes), but at the very least if we can get skilled and competent directors like Sandberg who can emulate and possibly even elevate James Wan's previous works, then there is a bit of a silver lining. The doll is stupid, the movie has shades of dumb... but if you can wade through all of that... you're gonna have a good time.


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