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A Doll’s Place is in the Home: The Sly, Semi-Subversive Domestic Politics of “Annabelle Comes Home”…

Annabelle Comes Home is an intriguing film. It’s arguably more intriguing than it is successful.

A large part of that is down to the way in which it very much basks in its position as an unlikely lynch pin of a horror shared universe populated by a variety of ghosts and ghouls that seem to be clamouring for their own spin-off movies like Annabelle or The Nun as the eponymous demonic doll just sits back and watches. It’s a surreal spectacle, particularly for a horror movie. Annabelle herself often feels like something of a passenger in her own movie, instead a tether for a variety of episodic horror adventures.

However, there is something more subversive and intriguing happening beneath the surface of the film. As the title implies Annabelle Comes Home is a story centred on the domestic environment, on a suburban family home menaced by a sinister supernatural threat. This is a standard horror movie set-up. A lot of horror movies focus on the idea of evil within the family environment, whether coming from within or without. Annabelle Comes Home borrows a number of cues from The Shining, including the bass on the soundtrack and a possessed typewriter, but it runs much deeper than that.

A lot of horror films focus on the nuclear family placed under siege, often as a metaphor for the pressures at work in the real world. Stephen King has pointed to movies like The Amityville Horror as examples as “economic horror”, reflecting the anxieties of families sinking into debt in their family homes during the seventies. (As if to underscore the point, the real life case that inspire the film was a fraud to help the family get out of debt.) Similarly, the liberal single-parent household in The Exorcist turns back to the Church, perhaps expressing deep-seated anxieties about liberalisation or shifting cultural norms.

There is often a strongly reactionary subtext to these sorts of horror stories. It is not always a conscious choice on the part of the production team, but it is rooted in the fact that change is scary and that subversions of conventional conservative dynamics are unsettling in large part because those conventional conservative dynamics are so ubiquitous. In short, audiences tend to see conventional family units as the default, so anything that attacks or erodes that is potentially uncanny and unsettling, and so many horror movies play on that instinctive reaction.

There are any number of obvious examples of how this approach can lead to very uncomfortable and unsettling implications. The Curse of La Llorona is perhaps an obvious (and easy) contemporary example. The basic set up of the movie finds a single (widowed) mother struggling to provide for her children; she has to leave them for extended periods to work at her job, but is also held back at that job because she is a single mother. Meanwhile, a Mexican spirit invades the family home and attaches itself to her children. The result is a film that seems to be about a single mother who leaves her children open to a foreign threat.

Part of what makes Annabelle Comes Home so interesting is the way in which it seems to play with this central dynamic, how it teases out and subverts some of the central subtext of the larger horror genre to which it belongs. Annabelle Comes Home is not so much a story about outside forces menacing a conventional family within the seeming comfort of their home, but is instead a story about two young women who end up trapped inside a suburban home and attacked by the monstrous forces that the family have consciously placed there and even folded built into the structure.

Annabelle Comes Home offers a slyly feminist twist on the familiar domestic horror.

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Non-Review Review: Annabelle Comes Home

At its core, Annabelle Comes Home is the Captain America: Civil War of the Conjuring Shared Universe.

That is a very strange sentence to type, and more than likely a very strange sentence to read. However, it speaks to very strange times. It seemed highly unlikely that The Conjuring would spawn Hollywood’s second most successful cinematic universe, despite efforts by various other studios to emulate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, even the Warner Brothers trailers before Annabelle Come Home reinforce how dramatically the franchise has moved the needle. Blockbuster franchise horror cinema is a thriving market even outside these films. Later this year, Warners have IT: Chapter 2 and Doctor Sleep.

Hello dolly.

However, even the mere existence of Annabelle Comes Home is an illustration of the success of this particular horror franchise. This is a major cinematic release at the height of summer. It is not even counter-programming like, for example, Midsommar. This is event cinema. As with The Conjuring 2, this is also very clearly designed in the language of blockbuster cinema. Like Civil War, this is nominally the third film in its franchise; although the nature of that franchise has changed dramatically with each film. As with Civil War, the production team have tethered this sequel to the heart of the shared universe.

Annabelle Comes Home is a fascinating, if not entirely successful, slice of blockbuster horror that seems to exist primarily as a showcase for the success of its own franchise. It’s sturdily and reliably constructed, if a little lacking in its craft and technique. It balances this lack of finesse against a playful sense of humour and a slyly subversive sensibility, resulting a solid addition to the shared universe.

Nobody ever asks the killer doll their side of the story.

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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.”

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Non-Review Review: Annabelle

Annabelle certainly looks pretty. Not the doll, of course. The doll looks like the children’s toy version of Jack Nicholson. There is something immediately and effectively intense about the figure at the centre of this horror spin-off, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anybody wanting the toy in their home in the first place. To paraphrase Stephen King’s criticism of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it is not a question of if this doll will start killing people, but when.

However, the production design on Annabelle is quite striking. It very much a period horror film in the way that The Conjuring was a period horror film. This time, we are visiting the sixties rather than the seventies. There are lots of bright colours and stylish clothes, and the film works hard to capture the mood and aesthetic of the era – or, at the very least, the era as we remember it. Annabelle feels like a horror film effectively riding the waves of sixties nostalgia that has rocked popular culture in recent years.

Well, it'll never be a collector's item now...

Well, it’ll never be a collector’s item now…

Sadly, Annabelle is not pretty enough to distract from its rather fundamental problems. Its script has some good ideas, but no real idea what to do with them. So, instead, it falls back on a kitchen sink approach to modern horror. The script for Annabelle is a collection of sequences and stock elements copied wholesale from recent films like Insideous or Sinister or The Conjuring. While those films did not necessarily have fresh scares, they were blowing the dust off some very classic horror movie tropes.

Here, it feels almost like reheated leftovers.

A doll's house...

A doll’s house…

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