We take another look at the artful, European horror styled prequel Annabelle: Creation
This past weekend, in Toronto, the legendary Royal Cinema ran a mini-Mario Bava festival, spotlighting four of the Italian master and Gothic horror pioneer’s most interesting movies: Black Sunday, Planet of the Vampires, Kill, Baby…Kill! and Hatchet for the Honeymoon. I was directly involved in setting this program up and had the pleasure of introducing the films and, hey, Hatchet star Stephen Forsyth even dropped by for an impromptu pre-show Q&A. Vampires and KBK were the restored 4K and 2K versions and it was a thrill to see these shadowy, immaculate works of style and atmosphere and innovation unspool on the big screen, looking better than they’ve looked in years. In the case of Planet‘s 4K restoration, perhaps better than its ever looked.
The point of this preamble is that, nestled amidst these marvelous screenings, I dropped into my local multiplex to take in a screening of Blumhouse’s latest The Conjuring spin-off flick, the prequel horror movie Annabelle: Creation. Now, I’m not a huge fan of The Conjuring, nor its sequel and I didn’t care much for the mediocre first Annabelle film. I am, however, a fan of James Wan. And James Wan? Well, he’s a fan of Mario Bava and that influence drips all over his finest works. In the first Insidious movie, right from the first frames, that evil hag ghost is a direct crib from Bava’s Black Sabbath segment “A Drop of Water” by way of the Baroness Graps in Kill, Baby…Kill!. I asked Wan about that when the picture was released. He enthusiastically admitted the influence, the likes of which carries over to Insidious‘ color canvas and swirling camera work. Wan went even more Bava-berserk in the underrated Insidious Chapter 2, which essentially forgoes coherent plot for a venture into surrealism, with fog and color-gels and weirdness pulled right out of Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, Blood and Black Lace and his final film, Shock. Those of you who dismissed that Insidious sequel, watch it again with that in mind. It’s kind of Wan’s secret masterpiece.
Which brings us back to Annabelle: Creation. This very site ran a review last week, awarding the film a meager 5/10 rating and focusing on what the picture lacks. And while certainly the film does lapse into the familiar (especially in its final reel), I was surprised to discover that Annabelle: Creation (which Wan co-produced) is mostly the best Italian horror movie I’ve seen since the sub-genre’s glorious climax in the early 1980s (yes, Italian horror kept coming throughout that decade but when the ’70s died… when Bava died… the granduer and wonder was vastly diminished). Don’t believe me? Read on…
Annabelle: Creation favors elegance and atmosphere over exposition, at least for its first hour. We’re introduced to a kindly couple living in a massive, castle-like farmhouse in rural 1940s mid-west America. Dad (Anthony La Paglia) is a revered local doll-maker and both parents dote over their sweet, loving little daughter. When their baby — who they call “Bee” — is killed in a shocking accident, director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and writer Gary Dauberman flash the action ahead 12 years, when a busload of orphans and their kindly Nun overseer (Stephanie Sigman) drive to the farmhouse after the now-aged father has opted to open its doors to the children. His sickly wife hides in the shadows, ringing her bell when she needs something, but otherwise the girls are overjoyed at their massive new home. But when the humorless and still haunted father warns the girls to never, ever open the door to his deceased child’s locked bedroom, little polio-afflicted Janice (Talitha Bateman, who gives a startling performance), she — naturally — does just that. And there, sitting upright in the closet, her face lit by the moonlight, sits the grinning, glass-eyed Annabelle doll. Waiting. And then very, very bad things happen and keep happening…
Seeing Annabelle: Creation almost back-to-back with Kill, Baby…Kill! it’s easy to see the Bava influence. The tried and true formula of an isolated world and a cursed ghost child are there, but that’s not what truly connects the prequel to the Maestro. Belgian-born cinematographer Maxime Alexandre was raised in Italy and his work is heavily informed by a European sensibility. You can see that evidence in his most popular pictures, from his delirious collaborations with French director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Mirrors, The Hills Have Eyes) to his sterling work on the otherwise middling Silent Hill: Revelation to his lush visuals in the recent The Other Side of the Door. Alexandre also directed a film that he also shot, a deft, gory psychodrama called Christopher Roth that I don’t think ever got a release in America and is a kind of mini-masterpiece, a giallo-tinted film that echoes Bava’s Blood and Black Lace by way of Dario Argento’s Tenebre. It’s stunning and further proof of Alexandre’s artistry.
And you can see that energy here, in Annabelle: Creation, pulsing in every frame. Bava was a cinematographer and a painter first and he fully understood how to cheat his budgets using simple tricks of movement and mise-en-scene. Here, it’s clear Sandberg didn’t have a huge budget to play with, so he leans heavily on Alexandre’s eye. And what an eye. The early scene where the girls enter the farmhouse and walk around in wonder is filmed as a single shot, with Alexandre’s camera zooming and swirling and diving around in amazement with the actors, turning the set into fully-fleshed out location, full of secrets and hidden passageways and splendor and gentle decay. Totally Bava-esque.
At its best, Annabelle: Creation understands what Bava exemplified, the insistence that deliberate pacing, expert use of sound and suggestion distill the biggest doses of dread and for its first hour, the film is indeed a masterclass of tension and atmosphere, some of it unbearably uncomfortable. In Kill, Baby…Kill!, Bava’s trick was to make the familiar somehow hostile by holding his lens on an object and image until we’re on edge, waiting for SOMETHING to happen. A doll, a favorite plaything of Melissa Graps, sits on a stool for an extended period and then just falls to the ground inexplicably. And its a jolt. A macabre sequence that sticks in the mind. Sandberg and Alexandre do this endlessly throughout Annabelle: Creation, juxtaposing long quiet moments with its excellent, almost all-female cast (another nice touch that adds a certain grace to the film) with this kind of gently arcane moments and truthfully, sitting in that dark theater, there were passages where I thought I’d have to look away. It’s all atmosphere. All hyper-stylized Gothic dread. It’s all foreplay and it’s marvelous to watch the artfulness of its execution.
Of course, Annabelle: Creation‘s last 20 minutes fall prey to the same Blumhouse formula of quiet, quiet JUMP SHOCK nonsense that they seem to think the kids want today. And maybe they do. So what? The beauty of the film is not that its perfect, but that Sandberg and Alexandre (along with editor Michael Aller) manage to sneak that immaculate European influence not only into the body of the film, but that it defines the bulk of it. That opening hour is SO strong that we can forgive its trespasses and truthfully, even when the familiar tropes kick in (if you’ve seen one girl dragged backwards into the dark, you’ve seen ’em all) there’s still enough moments of Bava-esque weirdness to make you smile (watch out for that scarecrow!).
Yes, Mario Bava would most assuredly approve. So might you, if you give this unexpectedly artful horror movie a chance.