“Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin.”
— Janice (Talitha Bateman).
Didn’t I just write a similar headline last week about The Dark Tower? I think I did, and I can’t promise I won’t write a similar one in the future as studios scramble to forge their own “universes.” In addition to Middle Earth and Marvel, we have the DC Universe, the Star Wars Universe, the Star Trek Universe, and the Universal Universe, the latter of which may not survive its initial entry, The Mummy.
Does that mean audiences do or don’t want connected movie sagas? Obviously, they do, but they don’t want bad ones. The Middle Earth and Marvel movies are exquisitely produced and feature A-list actors taking their fantasy roles very, very seriously, so is there room for the “Annabelle-verse,” or, if you prefer, the “Conjuring-verse”? Critics lose credibility confessing that they like horror movies, so I’ll completely delegitimize myself and admit that I’m not entirely averse to a mythology connected by The Conjuring’s “psychic investigators,” Lorraine and Ed Warren. By the way, I put that in quotes because I’m 99.999% sure there’s nothing to investigate. I like to reserve that tiny fractional percentage in case I’m wrong.
Supposedly based on a “real” case (but involving a Raggedy Ann doll), Annabelle was first seen as a piece of art department proppage in the Warrens’ headquarters in 2012’s The Conjuring, and later got her/its own movie in 2014’s Annabelle. Annabelle’s design, by conceptual artists Luca Nemolato and Jerad S. Marantz, is indeed disturbing, and Annabelle, directed by cinematographer John Leonetti, is a strong entry. By the way, you can purchase your own 1:1 scale replica of Annabelle. I can’t wait to sneak in my daughter’s room one night and set it up at her vanity.
Annabelle: Creation timeskips back to the 1960s to uncover her/its “birth,” when a busload of orphaned girls arrives at the ranch of Esther and Samuel Mullins (Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia), who lost their daughter, Annabelle, in an accident a dozen years earlier. Still reeling from that tragedy, Esther and Samuel want the sound of children in their home again, so have agreed to house the orphans until the Church can secure new accommodations. You can figure what happens next, although director David F. Sandberg admirably builds suspense as gradually as he can before opening the Pandora’s Box of jump scares and more.
Jump scares mean nothing without a foundational relationship, and there’s a pretty intriguing one between orphans Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). The parentless Janice and Linda have grown as close as sisters, even vowing they will not be adopted separately. Their bond grounds the film, especially as Lulu is also fiercely protective of Janice for another reason: Janice is partially disabled by a bout of polio. It’s even scarier when you can’t run just out of the house when the supernatural hijinks start.
Nevertheless, from this auspicious beginning, Sandberg shifts perspective about halfway through the movie, a significant shock for the audience. I realize such a shift worked for Hitchcock in Psycho, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily works in other films. I favor the Jaws paradigm for monster/horror movies, where we experience events from start to finish with an observer with whom we can identify. I also can’t go with LaPaglia’s performance, which is as creepy as if Boris Karloff had opened the front door and intoned, “Welcome to my humble abode,” although certainly LaPaglia’s only doing what Sandberg directs him to. There’s much broader latitude for Stephanie Sigman, as the nun in charge of the little girls, to craft a believably sympathetic supporting character. I hope we’ll see her in a future “episode.”
The audience gets it money’s worth, and fans of the Conjuring-verse will love Maxime Alexandre’s moody cinematography and the way the film dovetails into the events of past/future movies, doubtless the contribution of screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the previous installment. But here’s the thing: While I commend his inventive structure, I object on principle to a horror movie, much less a series, that feels obligated to over-explain everything: “Well, you see, a little girl died in a horrible accident, and then her parents…” If there were anything to any of the supernatural nonsense promulgated by the real-life Warrens, I suspect it would be beyond human comprehension, and it’s scarier on film, to me, if it remains that way.