Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)
We just covered this film, essentially delving into its subtext, or hidden meaning, with spoilers. What we will be concluding now is the critical analysis of this film’s formal cinematic design.
Annabelle: Creation is a film that I grew to appreciate quite a bit thanks to the intelligent storytelling that comes out of the script. However, this is a film that is incredibly rife with bad horror tropes. To the film’s favour, I wouldn’t say that this is any more of an assault on the idea of originality than most average horror films. Moreover, there was a clear attempt in this narrative to embrace the tropes whilst dishing out some genuinely horrific imagery doused in some well-earned atmosphere and tension. There was one thing that really got on my nerves with this narrative, however, and that concerned the atmospheric crescendos that come to a dead stand-still at their peak. To better explain, something strange will happen: a door will open off its own accord. The camera then has us stare straight at it, the character in the scene wary and confused as they close the door and then walk away… it happens again… the door creeeeeeks open… the music starts to swell… the person edges towards the door… the camera has us stare for an age more… the music grows louder and louder… their fingers come to the door handle… small pieces of sound design are emphasised… the character starts to doubt their actions… the music’s coming to its peak… something is gonna happen–BANG. Another door slams shut, all tension and horror are gone as the person pushes the door and runs off. Whilst this exact scene doesn’t exist in Annabelle, you see this paradigm repeat itself again and again and again and again throughout this narrative. Even when supernatural beings actually start chasing characters, the tension will continue to build, only for–BANG–a door to shut and the problem be done with.
This is so incredibly frustrating as this movie’s slow pacing never goes anywhere and all the built potential of atmosphere and tone add up to nothing. This is actually something that I began thinking about when sitting through the trailer for the up-and-coming It before this movie started. (Trailer watching is a practice I try to avoid). The trailer for the King adaptation seems to imply prolonged scenes in which children interact with clowns, meaning highly tense scenes that don’t end abruptly with false scares or loud noises. Whilst I have no faith in trailers at all, I began to think of a movie that had us stay in a horrifying situation that played out to its full extreme. The perfect movie in this regard would then start with a door opening and then, without jumping through time or having any unnecessary breaks, horror just flowing from the screen in a constant crescendo until the final climax in which everyone’s nails are bitten clean to the bone as they lie several feet from the edges of their seats.
With this unrealistic ideal movie in mind, I began to search my memory for examples of already-existing films that do force their characters to stay in a moment, letting the horror play through to its very extreme. After finding a few sparse and loose examples, like REC, The Exorcist and The Shining, I suddenly realised something: there is a whole genre in which this is the goal. This genre is commonly referred to as exploitation. We’ve talked about exploitation and video nasties (the British-named counterpart) before. In case you don’t know what these films are though, we’ll define them quickly. You can skip this next paragraph if you already know…
Exploitation films emerged from New Hollywood in the late 1950s and evolved across the 60s and 70s, coming to a dead end around the early 80s. These movies are the product of filmmakers that took advantage of the new cencorship infrastructure in Hollywood as well as the changing economic environment – which was far more accepting of independent films that came from outside of the big studios. Many exploitation films are horrors that focus on one idea to the point that it is ridiculous – and this is a kind of game that the audience and filmmakers play. However, whilst almost all exploitation films are highly sexual, violent, torturous and grotesque (seemingly with the goal of the filmmakers being arrested for obscenity, animal cruelty or after being accused of murder) some are also heavily racial (Blaxploitation for example), and so they can all be characterised by a focus on the lewd and the socially unacceptable. Video nasties serve as a cousin to this genre of film as they are a breed of exploitation films that reached markets through the new VHS technology that emerged from the 70s.
Exploitation films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House On The Left and Pink Flamingos all have a sadistic fixation with prolonging scenes, or ensuring we see the most extremely gratuitous and tortuous things occur as quick as possible. Are these the height of my ideal horror cinema? I don’t think so. Whilst exploitation films often take things to their extreme, milking a concept for all it has, they lack technical prowess in regards to the writing; they lack tension and atmosphere.
What then seems to be the solution here is a meeting of the exploitation film and the high-end modern horror film; the combination of atmosphere and tone with an exploitative fixation on horror. But, this solution, whilst it’s a nice idea and piece of motivation, comes with many of its own problems. Where is the line between prolonging tense scenes and exploiting concepts, reducing them to absurdist gore-porn?
This is a very difficult question to answer as there’s one lesson that Spielberg seems to have taught most modern filmmakers: don’t show the shark until you absolutely have to. Jaws works because the imagination can often be stronger than reality; a horrific thing not seen can be far more terrifying than something horrific played out right before your eyes. This is because potential, the unexpected and possibility are harder topics to grasp and comes to terms with than what is before you. Knowing this, filmmakers imply horror instead of striving to think up the most horrific images like those apart of the exploitation movement did. Thus, when we consider the pacing and structural issues of dud and anti-climatic horror scenes in movies such as Annabelle: Creation, there develops a tension in these scenes beyond the anxiety we may be imbued with as we wait for a jump scare. This tension is between the sophisticated soft-core horror and the hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, all-on-show exploitation horror. As a result, the line between these two contrary approaches to is called absurdity. Some filmmakers know how to embrace absurdity, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi are pretty brilliant at this, whilst some are better at keeping away from it, James Wan and David Sandberg seem to be quite good at this. There doesn’t seem to be anyone, at least, no one who comes to mind, who can negate absurdity and push their horror scenes to their utmost extreme, drawing every ounce of terror out of them. This leaves us in a place that’s not too better to that which we started at.
I’ll then have to leave with a few open questions to you. Can you think of any horror movies that take their scenes to their utmost extreme without becoming ridiculous and before having to cut things short with a door slamming or a false scare? Do you think the line between exploitation and atmospheric, jump-scare horrors is insurmountable? How do you think this element of filmmaking could be improved upon?
Annabelle: Creation – The Horrifying Toy Doll
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