Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg; 2017)

2016’s crop of horror movies was one of the best we’d seen in years if not decades.  It didn’t bring us any classics like Alien or The Shining, no, but the overall quality of films in the genre as a whole was a giant leap beyond what we’d been getting.  The best of those films, in my opinion, was Lights Out which was a truly scary film with smart characters, a plot not overly reliant on cheap tricks, and a higher purpose than just scaring its audience.  The biggest pleasant surprise of the horror genre, and really of any film for the whole year, was from Ouija: Origin of Evil which, as a prequel to the worst film of 2014 horror or otherwise, gave us a memorable and scary movie with realistic characters, intelligent writing, and a truly distinctive feel.  The horror movies of 2017 have continued the streak of better quality, but nothing so far has been as good as those two films.  With Annabelle: Creation being made by the director of Lights Out, David Sandbergand starring the ever so creepy Lulu Wilson form Ouija: Origin of Evil , however, things were looking like the true horror movie season could be starting out on a high note.

Annabelle: Creation, much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, is the prequel to a not so great 2014 horror movie (which itself was a prequel to a very good horror movie – The Conjuring) in which a family is terrorized by devil worshipers and an evil doll.  This is the story of how the doll came to be the conduit of evil which we see in the 2014 film.  Annabelle: Creation focuses on a group of girl orphans who are taken in by a couple who lost their own daughter twelve years earlier in an accident.  The patriarch of the family was once a toy maker and he keeps his daughter’s room exactly as it was when she died, though he warns the girls newly under his care to never, ever go into her room and that the door is to always stay locked.   Of course, one of the girls just can’t resist the temptation to go in, and when she does, the doll Annabelle is unleashed on the household.

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Annabelle: Creation is another prequel which stands head and shoulders above the film it is based upon.  Annabelle was a typical stupid horror movie which wouldn’t work if the characters acted like real people relying nearly entirely on obvious jump scares for its “horror”.  Which, of course, means it wasn’t really scary at all, merely surprising and surprising in a cheap manner, at that.    The prequel, while certainly not without its flaws and pitfalls, is much better written.  Seemingly incidental events are brought back later to haunt us making the power of the scare more intense when we can see the set up.  The characters seem like caricatures who make dumb decisions at times, but again, the movie often brings things back around shedding light on what earlier seemed like bad cliche giving the scares some poignancy, as well.  Not every bad horror stereotype present in the film gets this treatment, unfortunately, there are some jump scares which are merely jump scares, but it happens often enough that you get a bit of a wry smile when you realize that the film makers are playing off of your expectations.

The acting by the ensemble cast is also very well done, especially since so many of them are children.  Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia are the most recognizable names in the cast, and they are both quite good as the Mullins, the creepy owners of the house turned orphanage, and both are able to give some nuance to the people who seem at first to be stereotypes.  Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman play the focal orphan girls of the story, and both are excellent child actors, with Wilson in particular managing to greatly differentiate herself from the role she played last year in a very similar movie showing that she isn’t just playing herself.  Bateman also needs commendation in her performance showing a character who has true self awareness, and this is something most children her age lack in themselves, let alone have the ability to project that quality onto a character they portray.  The remaining cast don’t stand out quite as much as these four, but all do great work at ably toeing the line between cliche and authenticity the film calls for, the only one standing out in a perhaps negative fashion being Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte who avoids stereotype in her caretaker nun character by simply being dull.

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The type of horror on display here is not of the slasher variety, there is very little gore on display here, in fact, excepting for one particularly grisly scene which is probably what garners the film its R-rating.  The scares here are more of a fear of the supernatural unknown variety ala The Exorcist.  Annabelle: Creation doesn’t bring us anything truly new where scares are concerned.  Aside from the fact that charcter decisions are revealed to not be as silly and arbitrary as was first believed, the source of the horror here we’ve seen many times before.  That being said, it’s still about as well done as can be expected, utilizing perspective, pacing, and timing excellently to scare you even though you can see the scares coming.

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Final verdict: If you are a horror aficionado, Annabelle: Creation is a borderline must see film.  It’s a film that, while steeped in cliches of the genre, uses those cliches as well as they can possibly be used making for an interesting study if that’s your thing, or just a really fun scary movie if that’s more your style.  While those who aren’t horror movie buffs won’t enjoy this film quite as much, Annabelle: Creation still has respectable acting, interesting writing, and excellent technical work backing it up making for an experience you will most likely enjoy even if it’s your horror movie loving friend or significant other dragging you along to see it.  If you despise horror films, or just have a low tolerance for nightmare inducing images, then this is a film to avoid.  It’s a good example of the genre, but not one which will elevate itself to a status where all audiences will enjoy it, and it is horrific enough that I guarantee it will give all but the most jaded among us the creeps when the lights are out for a couple days afterward.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan; 2016)

It started in 1996 with Scream that Hollywood found audiences really wanted to make fun of the standard horror movie tropes.  Scream, the Scary Movie series, Cabin in the Woods, Dale and Tucker vs Evil, the list can go on and on of films that look at the gullibility, poor decision making, jump scares, and so on that made up so many horror films and were turning the genre into a literal joke.  2016 has brought us The Witch, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil to show us that those in Hollywood have learned a lesson and are bringing us stories with similar plots but that don’t rely on stupid tricks to scare us, they rely on psychology, paranoia, the supernatural…  things that really are scary.

Ouija: The Origin of Evil takes place in the mid 1960’s and focuses on the Zander family.  Some unmentioned time ago, the father in the Zander family died, and now the three women of the Zander family – mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and the two daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) – make their living by giving seances.  It’s all fake, but Alice rationalizes that they are helping bring a sense of closure to their clients. When older daughter Lina finds out about this new game called the Ouija Board at a friend’s house, she recommends her mother add one into her act.  Everything is sunshine and puppy dogs after that.

Film Title: Ouija: Origin of Evil

Here we see mother and daughter discussing what kind of puppy they should get to go along with their board game from hell.

Ouija 2 was brought to us by writer/director Mike Flanagan (and co-writer Jeff Howard), who has been primarily a television director until recently.  In 2013 he brought us Oculus which was an underrated horror film in its own right, but more prominently he brought us Hush the straight to Netflix movie which has garnered quite a lot of critical and audience praise this year.  Flanagan has shown he has a knack for giving us strong and smart female characters who do their best in horrific situations and this is no exception.  All three of the women in this story are intelligent, well rounded characters.  They all share a certain skepticism of the supernatural due their involvement in Alice’s profession, but all three show they are very much individuals when the strange events start occurring.  Flanagan and Howard show a real proclivity for character in their writing, showing that we are watching a family, with many similar learned traits but each one also an individual with their own, usually well thought out, way of doing things.

In addition to the excellent character work in the writing, Ouija 2 also has a ton of style.  The ’60’s setting is played up for all its worth, not just in areas like art direction and costuming, but even in cinematography which often uses techniques popular in horror films from the ’60s and ’70s (but, like everything else here, with a modern twist) and even goes so far as to add the marks in the upper right corner of the screen to let the projectionist know when to change the reels, even though there are no reels to be changed since everything is digital.  The film is also very aware of what the general public will be expecting from it making the occasional self aware reference as a sort of wink, but never to the point where it is distracting or cutesy, just enough for Flanagan to sort of look directly at the audience for a split second and say to them, “You though this was going to be bad, corny fun, didn’t you?”

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Now who would ever use someone’s preconceptions to take advantage of them for entertainment purposes?

Ouija: The Origin of Evil does have a few flaws.  It occasionally does break its tone in rather jarring fashion, particularly during the film’s handful of CGI sequences, and when you stop to think about it, it’s never really apparent at all why the Ouija board itself is necessary for the plot (though, this is perhaps a smart decision on Flanagan’s part, the board is there to get Hasbro sponsorship but never devolves into a pure marketing film).  But, overall the gripes to be had here are minor ones.

Who would have thought that a sequel to one of the worst movies of 2014 could continue the pleasantly surprising recent trend of intelligent horror films with an agenda of breaking through the stereotypes the genre has unfortunately brought upon itself?  Ouija: The Origin of Evil is a well acted, wonderfully written, stylistic film that will absolutely scare the living crap out of you and will most likely haunt your dreams for at least a few nights afterward.  Happy Halloween!

Rating:  7.6 out of 10