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.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates; 2016)

Harry Potter does not return, but the world in which Hogwarts exists does in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film written by J.K. Rowling in her feature film screenwriting debut.  This take on the wizarding world takes place in 1926 New York where the rules of magic may not be different, but the rules of how wizards need to behave are.  When Hogwarts graduate Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne comes to America with a case full of magical creatures, he’s only a cliched sitcom trope away from having some of them get loose in the city, and while he sets about finding them and putting them back in the case where they belong, people start dying and the Wizards Council has to take action.

I admit, I was surprised when I found out that another film was being made in the Harry Potter franchise, though I also admit that I don’t know why as it is a multi-billion dollar windfall for those lucky enough to be a part of the making of it, and was happy to discover that the new film would not only not have the Harry Potter cast of characters in it, but would be a period piece focusing on adults and for the first time would have J.K. Rowling herself write the actual screenplay.  This approach paid off, giving us a neat way to mix both the familiar and the brand new, a world we recognize with familiar rules but seen in a way never seen before.  Gone are children, schools, and prophecies, instead we have adults already well-honed in their magical crafts, wizard governmental agencies, and an entirely new landscape for this series – a large bustling city filled with No-Majes (the American word for Muggles).

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75 years earlier, and it still looks more modern than Hogwarts.

While the characters in this iteration of the series are adults, the story of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is still very much the story written with an eye toward the younger set, but still with some appeal for their parent’s generation, that the Harry Potter books and movies were.  The story does venture into a few dark places and involves more political intrigue than the original series did, but there’s nothing that children wouldn’t understand nor be scarred by, though a few scenes could get pretty scary for those younger than teens.  Unfortunately, many of the plot points of the film are also written for a younger crowd, as much of the film is predictable to the point of being downright trite and overdone, particularly throughout the film’s first act.

The film’s lack of creative plotting, however, is definitely made up for with its charm.  Everything about the movie from its setting, to its dialogue, is characters, and its visuals are completely and utterly endearing.  Our four protagonists – Newt, Tina (Katherine Waterston), Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) – are all interesting and very likeable, if not very well rounded, and the actors who play them absolutely pitch perfect in their portrayals.  The world of New York is very distinct from the world of Hogwarts, and its prohibition era setting shown in parallel with the magical world which must also keep itself hidden for fear of outright war with the world of the mundane is an absolutely fascinating allegory as well as a delightful method of surprising us with new ways of looking at J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

The very best part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though, is the visuals which never cease to amaze, astound, and amuse from beginning to end.  The special effects are nearly flawless, the art direction beautiful, the costumes and make-up spot on and stunning, and all blended seamlessly together to make for one of the most stylish and consistently great visual experiences of the year.

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This isn’t even one of the most impressive settings in the movie, and it’s still gorgeous.

If you are one of the many Harry Potter fanatics out there, seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a no brainer, this is exactly what you have been waiting for since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wrapped up the series 5 years back.  If, like me, you like the series well enough, but never felt the need for more, you will still absolutely enjoy this entry into the series, and may like me, even find its your favorite due to its more mature but still immensely charming handling of the subject matter.  The only people whom I don’t recommend seeing this are those who gave Harry Potter a try and found nothing to like in it.  While the characters and setting are different this time around, the tone and style still very much belong to J.K. Rowling and her Hogwarts inhabited world.

Rating:  7.4 out of 10