Movie Review ~ Annabelle: Creation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.

Stars: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring gleefully scared the bejeebus out of me and a bunch of other movie-goers that had been disappointed with horror movies for years. Smartly made, terrifically acted, and with significant replay value, it signaled a turning of the tides from the torture porn popularity of the Saw films into something with a bit more meat on its bones. Basically, it classed up the joint. Building off that film’s popularity and while waiting for Wan to deliver The Conjuring 2 in 2016, Annabelle was a quickie spin-off developed and released in 2014. Focusing on the freaky doll that was featured in the prologue to The Conjuring, it was clearly a cash-grab . Though it was competently made, it lacked the will to scare and wound up being a disappointment in my book.

With The Conjuring expanding into its own cinematic universe ala DC Comics and Marvel, a prequel to the spin-off sequel is here and it’s doozy. Annabelle: Creation is, as implied, an origin story and rights every wrong committed by its predecessor. The scares are there in droves, the acting is better than it has any real right to be, and director David F. Sanberg (Lights Out) brings some serious style to the proceedings with inventive cinematography and taut pacing. Best of all, it manages to connect to all the films that came before it and hints at what terrors await us in the future.

The prologue of Annabelle: Creation introduces us to the Mullins, a happy family living on the outskirts of a country town. Producing handcrafted dolls in his workshop, Mr. Mullins is putting the finishing touches on his newest wooden wonder when tragedy strikes and his daughter is killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, after they are forced out of their orphanage, a nun (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre) and six orphans in her charge come to live with the Mullins. This act of charity has deadly consequences for all when the girls start to experience strange occurrences all centered on a doll discovered locked away in a room lined with pages from the Bible.

An isolated house. A dumbwaiter with a mind of its own. A creaky stair-lift. A character that wears a porcelain mask to hide disfigurement. A battered scarecrow. There are so many warning bells going off in Annabelle: Creation that the audience and the characters are keen to and honestly that’s part of the fun. While there’s a mystery central to the story, it’s not complex enough to poke a bunch of holes in nor slight enough to write off as baloney.   Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (IT) have taken extra time to flesh out most of the characters without sacrificing pace or the attention of the audience.

Unexpectedly, where the film shines the most are the performances with the children often surpassing the adults. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave) and Lulu Wilson are convincingly strong leads with Bateman offering the right amount of pluck as a child crippled by polio while wide-eyed Wilson colors her growing fear with a nice dose of moxie. I struggled with the flat line readings of Sigman’s nun at times but she grew on me before the movie was over. Anthony LaPaglia (The Client) and Miranda Otto (What Lies Beneath) as the grieving parents harboring a dark secret do a lot with what little expository dialogue they have and their presence here gives some good grounding to what could have been a cheap-o scare-fest.

Fans of this series will get a few surprises from previous films and make sure to stick around until the end of the credits for a little teaser of the next chapter in this burgeoning library of horror.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annabelle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola

Director: John Leonetti

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s just something so unsettling about dolls, isn’t there?  I’m not talking about Malibu Barbie or He-Man but those frilly dolls with big eyes and faces stuck in permanent, and often pained, smiles.  Creepy dolls have been the subject for many a nightmare in movies, most memorably in films like Magic (a ventriloquist dummy plays a devious role in murder) and Child’s Play (the spirit of a serial killer takes the form of a benign doll) but everyone seems to have some film they can point to where something meant for snuggling winds up being deadly.

In 2013 The Conjuring made a big impact with critics and audiences (not to mention at the box office) thanks to director James Wan’s clever turning of the screws as he told the tale of a family haunted by an ominous spirit in the early 70s.  The family was aided by two paranormal investigators, The Warrens, introduced at the beginning of the film handling the Annabelle case.  Supposedly causing mayhem for two pretty nurses, The Warrens wind up keeping the doll (Annabelle) in their Occult Museum where they can keep an eye on her.  Though she figures into some events later in the movie, Annabelle isn’t really the focus of the film.

With the box office so big, the sequel ideas started flowing and the filmmakers wisely let their minds drift not just to continuing to follow The Warrens (a sequel is expected in 2015) but creating a spin-off centered on the origins of Annabelle. So that’s why we find ourselves a little over a year later with this sequel which maintains the same fine production values of The Conjuring while delivering some fine frights but which unravels just when it should all be coming together.

It’s the time of the Manson Family in California when we meet young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, Snow White and the Huntsman), and John (Ward Horton, The Wolf of Wall Street) who are the picture of blissful perfection in their sleepy suburban bungalow.  She’s quite pregnant and content to spend her days watching soaps and sewing while he finishes up his residency as a doctor.  Mia (the first of many nods to Rosemary’s Baby) also collects dolls and after a minor squabble John’s mea culpa present to her is a familiar looking doll.

Unfortunately, the first big scare sequence in the film was largely given over in its entirety in the preview yet I still found myself squirming with a sense of dread.  Long story short, after a terrifying nighttime encounter in which the doll plays a factor things start to get pretty scary for John and Mia, prompting their move to a high rise apartment building where they have more square footage to get freaked out in.  It isn’t long before more strange occurrences happen leading to the true terror manifesting itself at the most inopportune of times.

All this is well and good and it gave me the appropriate dose of the willies but the movie starts to collapse in on itself at a rapid pace becoming highly disappointing in the process.  John Leonetti, the cinematographer of The Conjuring steps into the director chair here but doesn’t have Wan’s good instincts in knowing how to bring all of the elements together.  We can only have so many shots of the camera slowly pushing in on the doll’s face (which gets dirtier and more menacing with each passing event) or following Wallis as she slowly walks down a hall or sloooooowly reaches out to move a curtain aside to see what’s behind it.  The key word here is slow.  There’s a lot of repetition going on in the film and in the end Annabelle is merely a series of the same set-up repeated on a loop.

Wallis, for her part, has a nicely ethereal quality to her that helps her build to the frenzy she works herself into as we approach the finale.  She and the handsome Horton make for a nice couple and the acting is above par considering this was a prequel rushed into production.  I’ve always liked Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) and though she may be slumming it here the actress never gives off the air that she’s an Oscar nominee in a barely realized supporting role.

So it’s not everything The Conjuring was…but it’s a lot better than the majority of the sequel trash we’re subjected to year after year.  Yes, it’s bloodier and less fully realized than the film that preceded it but it’s clear that some effort went into it and it’s far more effective than it probably should be considering how formulaic it all is.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It’s fun to be scared, isn’t it?  I know many people that would disagree with that statement but I’ve always found a base thrill in any amount of fright that I can find be it at the hands of a ghoul in a haunted house, a towering rollercoaster that looks more than a tad bit rickety, and in a dark movie theater watching the latest horror flick designed to scare the pants off of you. 

Even after hearing early positive buzz on The Conjuring and liking what I’d seen/read up until it was released, I was still wary that my expectations were raised too high to get out of the film the kind of entertainment I was looking for.  That all changed frame one as the Warner Brothers logo appeared along with Joseph Bishara’s ominous music and I just knew…this is going to be one scary flick.  And it was.  And I loved it.

The Conjuring represents a full feast of fright after sparse offerings in theaters over the last year.  For my money, it’s the scariest movie released in theaters in some time and the scares it provides are well earned and long-lasting.  Moments of good old fashioned dread exist in the movie that are genuine and cleverly constructed for maximum impact.  Not merely content to scare you once, director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) applies the pressure and maintains it for long stretches of time, creating several truly harrowing sequences.

Based on the true story of Perron family from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring opens with a dandy of an intro to the kind of work that Ed (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) do.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this opening but will say that it plays a nice twist on the kind of opening that Scream introduced so well and that has been oft-copied ever since. 

It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor, Being Flynn) and Roger (Ron Livingston, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) Perron have moved their five daughters (including Joey King from White House Down and Oz, The Great and Powerful) to a large farmhouse nestled in the boondocks of New England.   Though the actual events took place over 10 years, for cinematic purposes the timeline is several weeks…compressing years worth of occurrences is something the movie pretty much had to do.   It’s not long before the family gets to know their house a bit better; finding a boarded up cellar filled with cobwebs and antique toys that provide a few cursory scares. 

Mysterious bruising, the unexplained nightly stopping of all clocks at 3:07am, and other spooky bumps in the night don’t signal much of a warning until all hell breaks loose one night in the first of many masterfully filmed passages of piled on horror. 

Though we’ve already met the Warrens and seen their suburban home life (including a locked room full of creepy items from their various cases), they finally step center stage when Carolyn begs them for help.  When the Warrens arrive and start looking into the house and its dark past, they discover a history of horrifying events that shed some light on the present happenings.  The deeper they dig, the more danger they unearth not only for the family but themselves as well.

Even the best made horror film is largely at the mercy of the actors that are involved and Wan has assembled a crack mix of interesting actors to take on these roles.  Wilson may be a tad milquetoast in the role but he never overplays it, wisely playing second banana to Farmiga.  Ah yes, Farmiga.  Aside from the treasure trove of terror, the chief pleasure of The Conjuring is Farmiga’s multi-dimensional and fully committed take on the role of a clairvoyant who sees/feels more than we could ever imagine.  This is a smart actress who keeps us interested in the movie even if, like most horror films centered on a mystery, the more we know about the “why” behind the terror the less we are scared of it. 

Just a slight step below Farmiga is Taylor, one of the best actresses of her generation that continues to take on a range of roles in mainstream and indie films.  Largely absent from the horror genre since the turkey remake of The Haunting back in 1999, Taylor is perfectly cast as a normal wife and mother that’s pitched into a nightmare she can’t wake from.  Farmiga and Taylor are a dynamic duo, bravely enduring the wringer that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes put them through.

The Conjuring has no nudity, no explicit language, and a modest modicum of blood so it landed an R from the MPAA due to its “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”.  There’s something revelatory about a movie earning that restriction based solely because it’s too scary – and earn it it does.  This hopefully will be a perennial classic that finds its way on the shelf next to films like Halloween, The Changeling, and Poltergeist.  If your spine needs a good tingling, The Conjuring is just the medicine the doctor ordered.