Review – Annabelle: Creation

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You likely know by this point that I consider the Conjuring films to be two of the three greatest horror films ever made, along with The Ring (my thoughts on those three films can be found here, here, and here).  The original Annabelle movie doesn’t have a great reputation, but it wasn’t all that bad.  Most people are only capable of throwing films into two categories: perfect and horrible.  It was neither of those, delivering pretty standard fare for a horror film and failing to impress or be memorable in any significant way, even if it wasn’t all that offensive, either.  Despite people swearing up and down that they hated the film, it still somehow managed to earn almost $257 million at the worldwide box office on a paltry $6.5 million budget.  So, if you were the beneficiary of that success, you’d make another one, too.

The producers over at Warner Brothers decided to go another route, however, and deliver a prequel to that first film, just as Universal recently did with its Ouija franchise.  That prequel, Ouija: Origins of Evil, was a fantastic horror film that ultimately earned less money than its far inferior predecessor, a victim of an unforgiving audience.  On at least one of those counts, Annabelle: Creation is following the same path, whereas it’s still too early to know for sure about the other.

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When a nun and the orphans in her care are expelled by the closing of their orphanage, they find a home with a couple who are struggling to cope with the death of their young daughter from over a decade past.  The father of that young girl is also a dollmaker who created – you guessed it – Annabelle.  Whereas the Conjuring films are adapted from the real-life case files of renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (I feel like I’ve typed that description so often in my life that I’m not entirely sure it’s my own wording, anymore.  I’m keeping it the way it is, though.), this particular film is a purely fictionalized account of the genesis of the famed Annabelle doll.  In reality, Annabelle was actually a Raggedy Ann doll, not the product of an independent dollmaker.

So, knowing that this film isn’t purportedly based on factual occurrences may take a little bit of the luster off, but it shouldn’t really matter all that much.  It’s a solid story that surprises in all the right places.  As in the Conjuring films, the focus is on the characterization and narrative, with the scares being augmented by our investment in the cast.  One would have to be of rather questionable character in order to root for the demise of a sweet young orphaned girl who has been hobbled by polio.  So, yeah, maybe the script stacks the deck and perhaps even panders a bit in order to elicit the desired sympathy.  But since I’m sure most of you have complained at one point or another about the tendency of horror films to feature unlikable characters who you want to see dead, this should be a refreshing change (unless you’re already a fan of the Conjuring franchise – as you should be – in which case, this is just one of many areas in which the series almost always excels).

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As the film builds, the menace creeps in, a bit at a time.  It all crescendos in a climax bursting with imaginative and terrifying visuals buried within excellently-timed examples of both jump scares and suspense horror.  The film goes out of its way to offer up a haunting that manifests in ways unlike anything that has been done in film before (mostly, at least).

The marketing for the film has featured a quote (from a critic whose name I didn’t catch, so my apologies) that states that Annabelle: Creation is “one of the best films in the Conjuring universe”.  That may be a slight paraphrase, but that was the idea.  Using basic logic, that would make Annabelle: Creation the second-best film when comparing it to the two Conjuring films and the original Annabelle.  If it was the best, that would have been stated outright.  If it was in the bottom two, that would not make it one of the best”.  So, since there are exactly four films in the series, that only leaves one spot according to that particular critic.

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I agree that it’s significantly better that the original Annabelle, if for no other reason than I suspect it made more of an impression on me and I’ll remember more specifics of the film after time has passed.  But Creation is nowhere near the quality of the two Conjuring films.  Those films have infinitely more heart and weight, largely due to the presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who have a combustible chemistry and, when paired, create an unbeatable and intangible It Factor that can’t be replicated on demand.  Plus, those films do have the aforementioned added attraction of being based on true stories.

But that doesn’t mean that Annabelle: Creation isn’t good or worth seeing for horror buffs.  I just suggest that one not go in expecting it to measure up to either Conjuring film, since those movies are near-perfect classics and those would be unfair expectations.  Still, Annabelle: Creation is an above-average supernatural thriller with some fun and disturbing visuals and many genuinely unnerving moments.  It’s not one of the best horror films ever, but it’s a worthwhile entry and a fun horror movie to hold us over until It drops in just a few weeks.

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Review – Annabelle: Creation

#ThrowbackThursday – The Conjuring

The Conjuring

Original US release date: July 19, 2013
Production budget: $20,000,000
Worldwide gross: $318,000,141

Horror movies come and go at a brisk pace.  They’re cheap enough to produce and popular enough as a genre that it’s harder to lose money on them than it is to make a profit.  They typically don’t break box office records.  They don’t finish in the top ten grossers of the year.  They don’t win awards.  But people like them.  Oh, sure, during and after the movie, they pretend that they don’t.  They pretend like they aren’t scared and they’re having a horrible time.  And then there those people are, plunking down their money for the next one.  And the next one.  And the next one.

The Conjuring was a little different.  Very few horror movies make over $150 million worldwide.  This one broke out and scored over $300 million.  Why?  Two reasons: it was scary and it was a great film, independent of it being a great horror film.

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For the unfamiliar, The Conjuring is based on one of the many true-life case files of renowned demonologists/paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In this particular case, the Warrens are enlisted by Roger and Carolyn Perron to rid their family’s house of an increasingly aggressive supernatural presence.  Along the way, the famed haunted doll Annabelle is dragged into the proceedings, but this is not Annabelle’s story; the Perrons and their infestation are at the heart of the matter in this tale.

Directed by James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) and written by Chad and Carey Hayes, The Conjuring instantly became a standout among modern horror films and a pop culture phenomenon.  The film has so much going for it that it’s hard to even decide where to begin.

There are easy aspects to talk about, such as how genuinely frightening the film is.  I don’t scare easily, but this film had me on the edge of my seat even after having seen it a number of times.  Right from the opening Warner Brothers logo, Joseph Bishara’s haunting score – driven by heavy strings and disturbing minor keys – sets the tone and gets the proceedings off on the right foot.  Wan has much horror movie experience and it shows.  By the time he got around to The Conjuring, he was practically an established veteran of the horror genre and really had a strong grasp on what works and what doesn’t.  His shot framing, timing, and choices regarding what to show and what not to show are all masterful.  These components, alone, would be enough to make The Conjuring the best horror film since The Ring by a light year.  But there’s so much more than the horror going for The Conjuring.  There’s real meat to this film.

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The biggest advantage that The Conjuring (and its sequel, the greatest horror sequel ever made) has over other films of its type is that it’s based on the real-life cases of the Warrens.  But, by that, I don’t mean what you probably think I mean.  Yes, being based in truth adds an extra spark to the narrative.  It’s always fun after seeing a supposedly true horror film to hit the Internet and begin the research.  What was changed?  How much is documented and how much is exaggerated for the purpose of making an exciting movie?  For what it’s worth, Lorraine Warren has stated that the film sticks pretty close to the actual proceedings.  What one believes is up to them, but I’ve had my own supernatural experiences, once or twice, so I’m not about to pretend that I have the right or the ego to call her a liar (Ed has unfortunately passed away).  But there have been quite a few horror films that have purportedly told true stories.  That’s not what sets The Conjuring apart.

No, The Conjuring gets a boost specifically because of the source of the story – the files of the Warrens.  Because the Warrens’ accounts are so instrumental in the making of the film, their perspective is the focal point.  Typically, horror films are told exclusively through the eyes of the victims.  Said victims then call in the professional help, who are sometimes useful and other times, not.  Either way, the professionals are most often presented as one-dimensional figures who do nothing in life but bust ghosts.

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The Conjuring spends as much time developing the Warrens as it does developing the Perrons.  We see Ed and Lorraine as fully fleshed-out human beings.  They joke.  They flirt.  They fix cars.  They wash clothes.  They love their daughter.  And they happen to have the unique ability to help people with very niche problems.  They don’t live for this.  They do this because they have the ability to do it, whereas virtually no one else does.  They have the power to help, therefore they assume the responsibility to do so.

In fact, I see the Warrens as a real-life pair of superheroes.  They gain nothing from their services.  They don’t charge a fee; there’s no financial benefit.  They put themselves in harm’s way in pitched battles with other super-powered beings.  They act selflessly – with great power comes great responsibility.  The Warrens stand for everything that Spider-Man, Captain America, or Superman stands for.  The only things they lack that traditional superheroes have are codenames.

Completing the package are Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.  Ed and Lorraine are the greatest roles of both of their distinguished, highly-regarded careers.  Without Wilson and Farmiga, none of it clicks.  They both bring heart, warmth, and charm to the picture, ensuring that the viewer is as concerned for them as for the Perrons – if not more so.  They aren’t kooky investigators; they’re real people, consummate professionals, who are putting everything at stake in the service of others.

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Lily Taylor deserves a mention, as well, for what she brings to the role of Carolyn Perron.  She has a casual way about her, shining in the small, normal moments, and then exploding with nearly-concussive force when the climax arrives.  The entire cast is at the top of their game, but Wilson, Farmiga, and Taylor carry the picture.

I keep saying this and I’m going to say it again in order to ensure that I’m driving my point home: The Conjuring is a great film that just so happens to also fall within the horror genre.  Those who like to be scared get plenty of opportunity, but the movie is about family, friends, and caring for your neighbor.  It’s about good versus evil.  And it’s about facing one’s fears in order to overcome them.  And the film holds up, viewing after viewing.  I stand by my claim that it’s one of the three greatest horror films ever made, along with the aforementioned The Ring and The Conjuring‘s own sequel The Conjuring 2.  If every movie focused on the foundations of filmmaking – the basic tenets – first and then the icing, second, what a world this would be.  But, until then, we’ll always have The Conjuring.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Conjuring