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Non-Review Review: Annabelle – Creation

The issue with Annabelle: Creation is not one of skill or technique. Annabelle: Creation is a very well-crafted and well-constructed horror film. The issue is that Annabelle: Creation never quite figures out what kind of horror film it wants to be.

Annabelle: Creation struggles with tone. The movie bounces between extremes. At some points, it feels like it wants to be a genuinely dark and unsettling study of trauma and exploitation, a harrowing horror movie metaphor for some of the worst terrors that could be inflicted upon its young cast in their remote location. At other points, it is a much more conventional action horror movie, combining the blockbuster thrills approach of The Conjuring with the almost playful concept-driven self-aware scares of Lights Out.

Eye, Creepy Demonic Doll.

The movie often feels caught between these two approaches, repeatedly suggesting something much darker nestled at the core of what is a fairly solid and fairly recognisable horror template. There are moments when Annabelle: Creation is skin-crawlingly effective, and there are moments when the film cleverly punctuates its scares with awkward-laugh-out-loud moments of stress relief. In isolation, David Sandberg balances both approaches quite well.

The problem comes in trying to blend them together.

“Give me a moment, I’ve got to put my face on.”

One of the most surreal aspects of the modern franchise era is that the second most successful shared universe might be a series of consciously retro crowd-pleasing horror films. The summer schedule is littered with the corpses of failed franchise-starters, like The Mummy and The Dark Tower, with movie studios trying and failing to emulate the success that Marvel Studios enjoyed with The Avengers. Even those shared universes that are pressing ahead, like that imagined by Batman vs. Superman, seem to be stumbling rather than running.

As such, there is something endearingly odd about the fact that James Wan has managed to cultivate a weird horror-themed shared universe populated by horror movies that blend an old-school seventies aesthetic with blockbuster storytelling conventions. It could be argued that Warner Brothers and James Wan have managed an update of the Universal Monster Movies, perhaps the first truly popular blockbuster shared universe. Watching Annabelle: Creation, it is fascinating to watch it integrate with other films in the line, from Annabelle to The Nun.

Putting the creepy doll horror genre to bed.

These connections are more than simple continuity, which is folded into the narrative in a very knowing and self-aware manner that doesn’t feel too intrusive. Characters set up future films and tie into previous films in an efficient manner, avoiding cluttering the narrative too much. However, David Sandberg also works hard to ensure a similar style. Most notably, Annabelle: Creation borrows several clever storytelling concepts from Wan’s work on the Conjuring films, including a nice long take to orientate the audience with the geography of a space before the scares can begin.

Indeed, Annabelle: Creation carries over a lot of the same sensibilities as those earlier films. The mood is very much retro, both in terms of setting and in terms of trappings. Annabelle: Creation is a classic old-school horror movie with decidedly Christian undertones, trading in demons and possession and creepy old houses. However, like the other films in this weird shared universe, Annabelle: Creation filters these elements through modern stylistic choices.

It’s for orphans.
Or fans.

The film liberally employs computer-generated imagery, and knows that its audience is canny enough to understand how this world operates. It is too much to describe Annabelle: Creation as “funny”, but there are definite moments of “fun.” The movie is quite aware that its audience knows that characters splitting up is a bad idea, but also understands that the audience accepts this as the price of admission for a horror film. The movie knows that audiences understand when a character transgresses, but also that they want them to transgress so punishment can be unleashed.

Annabelle: Creation is populated with moments that are definitely knowing. “We shouldn’t be in here,” one character states after a pair of young girls stumble into an obviously haunted room. “Then go,” her friend urges, “I’m going to stay a few minutes.” The film knows that the audience knows exactly what will happen. Characters wander off on their own around a dark and creepy house at night, but nobody ever manages to wake a responsible adult in time to stop the carnage.

Yeah, the plot is a little holy.

There are moments when Annabelle: Creation feels almost like a modern twist on Scooby Doo, with a bunch of inquisitive kids surrounded by completely useless adults. After one savage attack on the grounds, and after a grizzly unexplained murder that left a horribly mutilated corpse, the movie’s sole responsible adult figure seems rather nonplussed. “Alright kids, time for bed!” that authority figure insists as the hearse pulls away, walking into the house past a weird and lonely isolate child who has taken to sitting on the porch staring into the distance holding a creepy doll.

The plot of Annabelle: Creation hinges on the sort of warped logic that could only really happen in a horror movie. The movie focuses on a bunch of adorable young orphans who are moving to a remote house in the country, which has been made available by the Mullins family. However, it quickly becomes clear that not only is there something horrific at work in the house, but that the Mullins family are aware of it. Annabelle: Creation is aware of all the logical issues underpinning its plot, but it breezes past them, understanding that they go with the territory.

“What? Can’t a little creepy girl be creepy in her own creepy room?”

Indeed, there are moments when in seems like Annabelle: Creation is having a great deal of fun. At one point, a little girl inadvertent shoots a pop gun at the eponymous doll, bashing it in the cheek; silently, the doll seems to turn its head back, almost accusatory. At another moment, one child is drawn to the sound of a rocking chair swinging in a locked room. Sure enough, the doll is sitting in the rocking chair, looking entirely too pleased with itself. The doll in Annabelle: Creation just loves popping up in the most unexpected places, as if trolling its victims.

There is a manic energy to the best of these sequences, a sense that Annabelle: Creation is aware of how ridiculous all of these elements are, suggesting that the monster at the heart of the film is really just toying with its childish victims for its own amusement. It is pulpy and absurd, but it is fun and it works. David Sandberg is working from a weaker script than he was with Lights Out, but he understands the pacing of his scares and tempo of release.

Working on it.

However, this sense of fun creates a tension at the heart of the movie. There are moments in Annabelle: Creation where it feels like the movie is about to morph into something much darker than its rapid-fire absurdity would suggest. In particular, there is something very unsettling about the way that this monster chooses to prey on a group of isolated young orphans, littler girls with nobody to look after them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

In some ways, this makes sense as a thematic element. On the most obvious level, what are dolls but women’s bodies reduced to play things? What do dolls represent but manufactured patriarchal ideals of womanhood? Posable, malleable, adjustable. It makes sense that a horror movie about a demonic doll would touch on this unsettling subtext, inverting the dynamic so that human bodies in a manner that is genuinely and truly unsettling. Indeed, Annabelle: Creation frequently uses dolls as symbolic stand-ins for its human bodies.

Symbolism!

There are moments when it seems like Annabelle: Creation is about to pivot sharply into a more primal and fundamental sort of horror. In particular, some of the early scares are filmed in such a way as to suggest abuse and assault of the young girls at the core of the film. The creature scratches viciously at the legs of one of its victims as she attempts to escape. Another child spends a night in the same bed as the creature, waiting terrified for dawn. This is to say nothing of how the creature harvests the soul of its intended victim.

This imagery is very effective and very creepy, tapping into fears that lie significantly deeper than the jump scares or the chase sequences of the climax. However, the tone of these early and uncomfortable sequences feels very much at odds with the more playful and conventional scares that populate the rest of the film. Annabelle: Creation struggles to find the right balance between these extremes. (Lights Out did a much better job at balancing its depression monster with a fun high concept, although it did fumble the ending somewhat.)

“Be a doll.”

Still, there is something interesting nestled at the heart of the film. Horror is a fascinating genre because of its ability to suggest social commentary in vague and ambiguous manner, to hint at concepts that truly unnerve and unsettle its audience indirectly. The haunted house movies of the seventies reflected the economic anxieties of the era, for example. The found footage glut of the early twenty-first century could be seen as a reaction to the first-hand footage of Ground Zero that dominated cable news and defined 9/11 for a generation.

Annabelle: Creation went into production during the 2016 election cycle, and it seems to hint at some of the cultural concerns of the present moment. Annabelle: Creation is a movie steeped in nostalgia and religion. The bulk of the movie unfolds in the late fifties, with a prologue set in the mid-forties. Set in rural America, the film evokes an idealised past. The Mullins family are introduced as good godfearing folk. They attend mass together with the community, they operate a small business, they have a large tract of land that they can call their own.

Taking that window of opportunity.

In many ways, the Mullin evokes the nostalgia suggested by “Make America Great Again”, the notion that fifties America was a simpler time for rural and religious white Americans. The Mullin family seem to live a simple but worthwhile existence, even demonstrating charity by volunteering to take in a bunch of young orphaned girls. Religion permeates the film. The house is decorated with crucifix imagery. Several rooms have crucifix-shaped windows. Samuel Mullin says grace before eating and whittles at a cross. The girls are delivered by a priest and overseen by a nun.

However, Annabelle: Creation chips gently away at this idyllic facade. The prologue reveals that Samuel and Esther Mullins lost their daughter years before the movie began. They are a family literally without a future. In some ways, this reflects the anxieties felt by certain white Christian Americans during the 2016 election, confronted with demographic data suggesting that they might soon be a minority in their own country. This anxiety has spurred certain branches of the evangelical movement to make unholy compromises in the pursuit of their agenda and their ideal future.

“Yeah, there’s no way this backfires.”

Annabelle: Creation suggests that the Mullins have made a similar compromise. Confronted with the loss of their future, they reach out to whatever power might be able to restore that to them. Naturally, something was listening in the darkness and reaches back, promising to restore at least some pretense of the way that things used to be. It is just an echo, just a suggestion, but the Mullins grab it and hold on for dear life. Only too late do they realise that they have let something monstrous and demonic into their home.

The parallels are striking. Confronted with their own obsolescence and  the prospect of watching their vision of America’s future slip away into the ether, many evangelical voters reached out to the voice in the darkness and supported Donald Trump as he took over both the Republican Party and the White House. These voters knew that Trump was not a religious man, and that he was a confessed sexual offender, but they embraced him because he offered something familiar and reassuring. He offered a vision of America that many evangelicals thought was lost.

Rocking it.

As with those evangelicals in real life, the Mullins quickly discover that they have been had. The force invited into their house becomes a corrupting and decaying influence. The Mullins farm looks idealistic in the prologue, but seems to be falling apart later in the film. The dumbwaiter does not work. The room in which Esther has made herself at home seems to be rotting from the inside out, paint peeling to reveal the wooden beams. Esther herself wears a mask to hide her true face.

“What do you want?” one character demands of the demon at one point early in the film. “Your soul,” the demon responds. When one of the girls asks her teacher about whether her soul is truly safe, her teacher reassures her. “The devil only takes those weak of spirit,” the nun insists. The implication is quite clear. In welcoming this monster into the how, the Mullins have revealed themselves to be weak of spirit. That weakness is understandable in the context of their loss, but it remains a sin that has marked them.

This is the true horror of Annabelle: Creation, the acknowledgement that evil does not allows arrive unannounced. Sometimes, evil waits for decent folk to invite it in. Sometimes, in a moment of weakness, otherwise good people are willing to invite the devil into their home. Annabelle: Creation seems to suggest that such a guest rarely leaves of their own accord.

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