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Annabelle: Creation

So. Annabelle: Creation. A prologue that nobody asked for to a horribly reviewed prologue that nobody asked for. Even better, this entry comes to us from David F. Sandberg, who previously made his debut with the just plain embarrassing Lights Out.

The film doesn’t waste any time as it opens with the creation of the eponymous doll. And to be clear, it starts out as nothing more than an innocuous child’s toy crafted by Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), who lives a neatly idyllic life with his wife and daughter (respectively played by Miranda Otto and Samara Lee). Then the daughter gets killed in a tragic car accident. Cut to twelve years later.

Samuel’s wife is now a recluse who never leaves her bedroom, and the pair of them have generously agreed to share their home with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and her flock of orphaned girls. Foremost among them are the polio-crippled Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Then we have Phillippa Coulthard and Grace Fulton as a couple of annoying teenagers, and… uh…

…Okay, look. I’m not really interested in writing about the movie itself. That’s not to say there’s nothing bad here: Anthony LaPaglia does an elegant job playing a man who’s tough but damaged, Miranda Otto does a yeoman’s job in a thankless role, and Talitha Bateman is no slouch. But the MVP of the cast is easily Lulu Wilson, having already earned her status as a seasoned veteran of the genre by way of Deliver Us From Evil and Ouija: Origin of Evil.

I also want to stress that the scares themselves are perfectly fine. The timing is beautiful, the atmosphere is thick, the score and editing are effectively used… really, if you’ve seen any of the other Conjuring movies, you know what you’re getting. And that’s exactly the point.

The premise and the setting ultimately don’t matter because we know it all amounts to the same thing: A demon fucks around a bit, a character gets possessed and acts all freaky, lights flicker, doors slam shut by themselves, Christian propaganda, characters screaming their head off, jump scare jump scare jump scare, and everything ends exactly how we know it has to be because it’s a prequel.

As a horror film in and of itself, it’s okay. It’s a quick and disposable bit of popcorn fluff, good enough to be scary in the moment but not good enough to linger in the memory or merit multiple viewings. But as one such disposable horror movie in a string of disposable horror movies, it’s a mediocrity barely worth noticing. The series itself, however, merits a bit more discussion. Especially because it seems like the filmmakers are putting in a concerted effort to make The Conjuring — of all things! — into a shared cinematic universe (or “superfranchise”, as I prefer to call it).

For comparison’s sake, consider The Mummy (2017). Universal invested untold fortunes into this high-risk/high-reward PG-13 blockbuster with the intent of starting a “Dark Universe”. It failed, in large part because this “horror movie” wasn’t even remotely scary, as the studios took certain measures to minimize risk. The film was a colossal bomb and an instant pop-culture punchline.

Another point of comparison is the DC Cinematic Universe. WB spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which came out under an omnipresent cloud of toxic rancor. Suicide Squad was already in the can (and was similarly panned when it came out), Justice League was set to begin production almost immediately after BvS debuted, and WB is still scrambling to course-correct all these years later.

But of course The Conjuring is a totally different beast, in large part because these films don’t cost nearly as much to make. From Blair Witch Project to Saw to Paranormal Activity right up to James Wan and his legion of imitators, modern horror is built on the concept of “low risk/low reward”. We’re seeing more and more horror films built on a shoestring budget — this film, for example, cost a reported $15 million. Justice League probably spent five times that much on reshoots alone.

Thus the box office threshold for what constitutes “success” is considerably lower. All the other Marvel imitators are spending massive fortunes trying to get all the money in the world, while The House That Wan Built is happy to consistently make smaller fortunes one at a time. Slow and steady wins the race.

Additionally, the lower budget means that filmmakers can go further and take more chances with an R-rating, rather than a safer and more general PG-13, which in turn leads to more effective scares. And the quick turnaround time means that course-correcting is far simpler. Hell, even when an entry bombs, the budget might have been small enough that the studio could still make money anyway, or at least suffer a barely significant loss. Compare that to the MCU, which could go into a tailspin if even one movie turned out to be an undeniable flop.

But that brings me to a serious weakness of the Conjuring superfranchise so far: The connective tissue is pitifully thin. Yes, these films are supposedly based on the “real-life” case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, but it really doesn’t seem to make any difference if the movies are made up entirely or if the Warrens are even mentioned. We’ve also got Annabelle, of course, but it bears repeating that nobody really asked for any prequels about Annabelle to begin with and the doll is made no more interesting for all we’ve learned about it over two movies.

No, it appears that the filmmakers are banking on the Demon Nun as the glue that binds this superfranchise together. Good luck with that. Even after this movie and The Conjuring 2, I still have no idea who or what this Demon Nun is. Far more importantly, I don’t know why I should care.

Four movies into this, and the world-building here is pathetically limited. We still don’t know very much about the rules of this world, the nature of whatever it is that’s been doing all of these hauntings, or what endgame this is all building up to. Precisely because these movies are so disposable — and made to be so — there’s no sign of any worthwhile payoff for watching every single movie. Which is kinda the main reason why the MCU is the money-generating pop culture juggernaut that it is.

What’s even worse is that as Marvel started getting into a groove, they started getting consistent. With a Marvel film, you know what you’re getting. And when it comes to horror, the phrase “You know what you’re getting” is a kiss of death. After so many years of these films and their various wannabes, it’s become sadly too predictable to know what’s coming and when it’s coming. No matter how thick the atmosphere may get, we’re still basically watching the same plot holes amid all the banging and screaming. It all gets to be nothing more than so much noise after a point.

I really want to stress that Annabelle: Creation is a perfectly serviceable horror romp that’s ideally suited to being rented, enjoyed, and then forgotten. But at this stage in the game, that’s simply not good enough. The standard tactics and plot devices are steadily losing their shock value, and the plot holes are becoming more obvious. Plus, it’s starting to try my patience that the filmmakers expect us to invest in this massive cinematic universe without giving us anything worthwhile to invest in.

James Wan and company pushed the envelope in a huge way with the first Conjuring. Now we need them to take this to the next level, because this holding pattern can only last so long.

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