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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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136. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation – Independence Day 2019 (-#45)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Jess Dunne and Luke Dunne, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Kim Henkel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

Prom should be the best night of Jenny’s life. However, an unexpected detour winds up taking Jenny and three of her friends on an unexpected detour down the back roads of rural Texas. While exploring, the teens stumble upon a horror nestled snugly at the heart of the Lone Star State.

At time of recording, it was ranked 45th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the worst movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona is fairly solid as contemporary studio horrors go.

Although the arrival of Avengers: Endgame has a lot of attention focused on the largest and most successful shared cinematic universe of the twenty-first century, there is a lot to be said for the strange horror universe that has been built outwards from The Conjuring. Although this trend is most overt in The Conjuring 2, the rare horror movie to also feature a car chase sequence, there is something fascinating in how these films have transformed studio horror into a blockbuster concern.

Mother have mercy.

There is a reason that these films are released during the summer months, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. Again, discussing The Curse of La Llorona in such terms might seem cynical, but it is genuinely striking. It takes a lot of work to satisfy the competing demands of the two genres; the shock of horror with the familiarity of blockbuster storytelling. The challenge with The Curse of La Llorona lies in offering audiences something that satisfies all their expectations of a film like this, while still offering a few shocks and starts along the way. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Curse of La Llorona strikes that balance relatively well. The film knows the formats and rhythms of a horror film, and director Michael Chaves knows both what the audience expects and how to work within that format to build a genuine and compelling sense of dread. The Curse of La Llorona is well-made, efficient, and delivers what the audience anticipates from a Conjuring spin-off. There’s something endearing in the reliability, in the care with which the film strikes these sorts of balances.

Scream queen.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Non-Review Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw is a broad and blackly comic exploitation horror story.

Of course, Velvet Buzzsaw has all the trappings of a biting social satire about the shallowness of the art world, the kind of cartoonish takedown that has been a pop culture staple for decades, built on the acknowledgement that the world of commercial art is vapid and that the people who inhabit that world are delusional and self-centred. There’s certainly an elements of that to Velvet Buzzsaw, which populates its cast with the kinds of characters who might be ordered in a box set for that kind of film; the pretentious and insecure critic, the conniving climber, the manipulative dealer, the precious artist.

The art of horror.

However, Velvet Buzzsaw has nothing particularly new or interesting to say about these characters and this world. In fact, the opening half-hour or so that the film spends with these characters in this world is perhaps the weakest part of the film, often feeling like the television edit of a more pointed and acerbic film. There is a sense that writer and director Dan Gilroy understands this. At one point, early in the film, Rhodora Haze surveys a Miami art show with a potential client. “I get the joke,” she admits. “None of this new.” She may as well be talking about the stretch of the film in which she finds herself.

However, as with Nightcrawler, there is a sense that the social commentary is not the central appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw. Instead, again as with Nightcrawler, the appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw is the manner in which Gilroy appends what is a fairly straightforward criticism of hypercapitalism to the framework of a horror movie, to create a compelling and exciting aesthetic. Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t work as an angry takedown of a world that has been well-explored across film and television, but it does work as a delightfully schlocky B-movie about (literally) killer art installations.

Painting the town red. And blue. And yellow.

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My 12 for ’18: Quiet Please in “A Quiet Place”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number eleven.

Much has been made of A Quiet Place as an old-fashioned horror throwback, and justifiably so.

There is a lot to like about A Quiet Place, especially for audiences who are maybe a little cynical about the modern cinematic landscape. It is an original property. It is not a sequel, reboot, prequel or remake. It is not even based on a book or a comic. It does not exist as part of a shared universe. It is not a story drowned out by the cacophony of end-of-the-world stakes. It is not a story that struggles under the weight on unnecessary exposition. It is a solid, mid-tier, old-fashioned horror film. It is the kind of respectable mainstream genre film that doesn’t really exist anymore.

However, there is something that separates A Quiet Place from the year’s other nostalgic prestige horror offerings like Hereditary. Hereditary was a film that largely succeeded as a nostalgic throwback to the classic horror films of the seventies, tapping into the same fears of familial dissolution as Don’t Look Now or The Exorcist. In contrast, A Quiet Place is a thoroughly modern film. It is a movie that very much reflects the modern world, although not necessarily in terms of theme or story. Indeed, trying to work out the politics of A Quiet Place is bound to be an exercise in frustration.

Instead, A Quiet Place is a modern film in the way that it engages overtly with and makes the characters complicit in the act of watching a horror movie. It is a horror film that is consciously designed in order to heighten and emphasise the manner in which people watch films.

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