Annabelle: Creation and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by David F Sandberg
I’m gonna let you all in on a little secret. I absolutely HATE The Conjuring. Seriously, my hatred for that movie may not be on par with something as dreadful as Incarnate, but I was completely miserable while watching it. Even if you ignore the rather gross way it tries to legitimize (or at the very least sensationalize) a pair of “paranormal investigators” who have been bilking people out of money for decades. I mean sure, this is true of ANY of those assholes who purport to be super natural experts (outside of those groups that dress up as Ghostbusters) but it just irks me how a talented cast coupled with a talented director were being wasted on what is essentially propaganda for fraudsters because SPOILER ALERT, GHOSTS AREN’T REAL! I can suspend my disbelief for a movie or basically any work of fiction, but The Conjuring crossed that line by not only claiming to be BASED ON A TRUE STORY, but by doing so in a way that would only boost the supposed validity of people that clearly didn’t deserve it. Anyway, rant over. My hatred over the first movie kept me from seeing the sequel which got GOOD reviews as well as the Annabelle movie which… didn’t. Seemingly realizing the hole they dug themselves into, Warner Bros is trying to pull a Ouija: Origin of Evil; not just because they got the same actress from THAT movie, but by creating a retro prequel that looks to have nothing to do with the other film. Sounds like a good movie as far as I’m concerned. ANYTHING to get us as far away from The Warrens as humanly possible! Does their gamble to distance themselves from the first crappy movie manage to pay off, or was this a bad idea then and an even worse idea now? Let’s find out!!
Back in the good ol’ days before polio vaccines were widely available, there was a little girl named Annabelle (Samara Lee) who got the Pet Semetary treatment, i.e. she got hit by a car that REALLY should have been going a lot slower! Her parents Samuel and Esther (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto) get very depressed with the latter even suffering from some sort of degenerative disease, but they eventually open their doors to a group of orphans who have nowhere else to go. The two main orphan girls Janice and Linda (Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson) soon realize that weird stuff is going on with the former even finding a mysterious doll in Annabelle’s old room. Okay, not so much her room but what looks to be a War Room that’s been secretly carved into her wall… for some reason. Anyway, we eventually find out that the doll houses some sort of demon that was passing itself off as the ghost of Annabelle, but the parents found out and locked it away! I figure they should have BURNED the damn thing instead, but I guess locking it behind a not-so-secret door and leaving the key out so that practically ANYONE could find it was a good option too! And so Janice spends the rest of the movie trying to convince her fellow orphans as well as Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) that something weird is going on, but no one other than Linda seems to take it seriously which can only mean that things are gonna get worse and worse in the house as Demon Annabelle is free to roam the halls and I guess extract its revenge. Can Janice and Linda survive the near constant onslaught of spookiness brought about by the demon? Will everyone else wise up to what’s going on before it’s too late? How does someone make this doll and the NOT expect it to be a demon magnet!?
Just like with Ouija: Origin of Evil last year, what we have here is an incredibly talented director that has been shackled to a weak franchise and making the most of it which, to David Sandberg credit, has led to a film much better than it has any right to be given the circumstances. It’s certainly one of the best horror films so far this year (SO much better than the infuriatingly average It Comes At Night), but every time we have to loop back around to the source material, which is A LOT, the movie is noticeably weaker for it and while I guess it feels a bit more polished than his previous film Lights Out, it sadly doesn’t hold a candle to what that movie managed to do because of that. Still, you can’t deny just how unexpectedly well this turned out given everything going against it. It’s just disappointing that David Sandberg couldn’t make a BETTER movie that wasn’t dragged down by being an obvious studio mandate to milk a really obnoxious franchise for all its worth.
So what separates this movie from other horror films this year like Rings and The Bye Bye Man (ugh…) both of which could EASILY end up on my Worst of the Year list yet don’t come across as all that uniquely awful for the genre? Well… it’s really simple! They spent the first act building up likable and sympathetic characters, they were creative and PATIENT with their jump scares, and the cinematography is spot on with its use of shadows, creative camera work, and imaginative concepts to make the horror THAT much more effective. I still don’t understand why a lot of horror movies keep getting these aspects wrong, particularly when it comes to writing likable characters, but I guess that’s why you hire a guy like David Sandberg who knows how to make interesting characters and is practically a virtuoso when it comes to filming darkness and shadows. But wait, you may ask! Shouldn’t the writing credit go to Gary Dauberman who ACTUALLY wrote the movie!? David Sandberg doesn’t even have a co-writing credit on this! Maybe, I guess… but considering the guy’s previous work includes the ORIGINAL Annabelle and little else, I can’t help but think that Sandberg had a bit of influence over this considering how the well written characters was one of the best elements of his LAST movie. Then again, Dauberman is the screenwriter on the upcoming IT adaptation which looks decent enough, so maybe he IS a decent writer and the first Annabelle film was simply a raw deal for everyone involved. Regardless of any of that though, the first and most important thing this movie gets right is that we LIKE the characters in this and they have a level of depth to them that keeps them from falling into Bad Horror Movie Character stereotypes; even the two older girls who initially come off as stereotypical mean girls but are fleshed out as the movie goes along.
The solid characterization makes the movie THAT much more tense when things get scary, but make no mistake that this is a FANTASTICALLY shot film that’s just as much a joy to watch HOW the horror scenes play out as it is to get immersed in the scenes and anxiously anticipate the next scare. There are so many creative moments that tease at your imagination as well as slow and methodical editing that knows just how long to hold a shot and just when to have them payoff. It’s a visual treat and only gets better in the third act once things begin to go COMPLETELY off the wall. Scary scarecrows, demonic chase scenes, even some pretty nasty gore which I wasn’t expecting despite the film’s R rating! Admittedly it DOES get to be a bit much at the end when they’re throwing EVERYTHING they can at the wall and do so for a little too long, but I’ll take the TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF over the utterly bland and over derivative horror films we’ve gotten so far this year.
Unfortunately, the flaws start to come in once we have an actual PLOT to worry about which naturally doesn’t make any freaking sense. The biggest problems I have with ghost stories are unclear motivations from the antagonistic spirit and the inconsistency by which they go about achieving their vague goals; both of which are present and accounted for here and is doubly disappointing as my favorite aspect of Lights Out was the toxic personality of the ghost as well as her unhealthy relationship with the mother character. In Lights out, every action the ghost took (even the ones that don’t actively aid in her evil pursuits) are INCREDIBLY motivated because the film took the time to set them up as an ACTUAL character who is truly a participant in the story. In here? I don’t know… the demon thingy wants someone’s “soul”. Sure, why not. What do demons actually DO with souls anyway? Is it planning on EATING the soul? Does he plan on selling it in Hell for various goods and services? What is the current market value of a soul anyway? This weak sauce explanation for what is going on not only drags the movie down in terms of having a rather lame antagonist, but it also undercuts the demon’s actions throughout the film as there’s literally nothing holding them back from just killing everyone on a whim yet the movie never explains why it doesn’t. They even got this right in Ouija: Origin of Evil which admittedly didn’t have the MOST fleshed out ghosts to deal with, but they clearly had to restrain themselves and manipulate the characters in the film so they can achieve their goals. Nothing like that happens in here and so the escalating demonic activity going on ends up feeling inexplicable which drains a lot of the tension and drama from the whole situation. Not only that, the Annabelle doll itself is INCREDIBLY extraneous to the story as there’s really no explanation for ITS significance either. It keeps popping up over and over again throughout the movie, but it really doesn’t do anything. Whenever bad shit starts to happen, it’s never coming FROM the doll; it’s the demon itself in some other form! There’s literally no reason this HAD to be an Annabelle movie or in THE CONJURING CINEMATIC UNIVERSE (ugh…) and every time the movie tries to tie that back into this damn solid ghost story (albeit with a somewhat weak antagonist) it just feels incredibly forced and comes off as rather awkward.
It’s a testament to the strength of the director as well as everyone else on the project that it turned out so well, but it’s certainly not enough to turn me around on the franchise, nor do I want anyone involved to waste their time on a sequel. If this gets David Sandberg a bit more clout from the studios, then fine. He made a good movie in a series I really don’t like which is more than can be said for OTHER visionary directors who tried the same thing even with GOOD franchises (*cough* Alien 3 *cough* Alien Resurrection *cough*). If you’re looking for a decent horror film, well this is certainly the one to see this year but that’s still a rather low bar considering how weak it’s been for the genre this year. Even so, this movie has plenty of interesting, atmospheric, and above all intense moments that you’d probably want to see it in a theater to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Just promise me that if David Sandburg manages to crank out a hit with this that we’ll get a Light’s Out 2! THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR!!