Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

I hated the first Annabelle film. The second was passably okay. This movie eventually bests them both, but jeez is it ever an exhausting journey getting here. The problems that hinder this series from fully blossoming into the Evil Doll splatter fest it so easily could be are consistent throughout each entry. Firstly, despite her effectively spooky visual design, Annabelle herself is embarrassingly underutilized. She’s a cursed doll who does not move or stab or kill or speak on her own accord, robbing the series of the usual payoffs of the Evil Doll horror genre. Instead, Annabelle is a talisman used to extend the reach of The Conjuring franchise’s function as the Spooky MCU. Her titular homecoming here refers to her arrival in the basement of the paranormal-investigator couple The Warrens, who tie this loose extended universe of undead creepy-crawlies together with a bookended cameo in each picture. From there, Annabelle is sidelined in her own movie, as always, to make room for non-doll creatures to be brought in to individually audition for their own spin-off series, expanding the Conjurverse even further instead of paying off their full potential in the moment. Unless you’re crafting soap operas or wrestling angles, it’s an awful approach to storytelling, as it always promises satisfaction next time instead of emphasizing in-the-moment, self-contained stakes. Thanks to every single movie production company wanting what Marvel has, though, it’s now the norm in commercial filmmaking, which is getting increasingly frustrating.

All that said, Annabelle Comes Home at least openly accepts its role as a franchise brand extender whereas previous entries in its series have downplayed that function as much as they can – saving teasers for Conjuring spinoffs like The Nun for their post-credits stingers. Here, Annabelle operates as the Nick Fury of the Warrens’ basement, assembling undead ghoulies like The Ferryman, The Killer Wedding Dress, and The Werewolf Ghost to torture the teens she shares a house with, effectively auditioning each of them for their own Spooky MCU spinoffs. She’s contextualized as a “beacon for other sprits” within the movie to justify this indulgence, but that throwaway dialogue does little to reconcile with the fact that this is an Annabelle movie where Annabelle disappears for long stretches of time to make room for another Conjurverse monsters. Once again, this is an evil doll movie that has no interest at all in being an evil doll movie, which is maybe Annabelle’s true curse. The good news is that Annabelle Comes Home eventually does pack the screen with plenty of non-doll spookies off all shapes & sizes. Once all of Annabelle’s fellow spirits are set loose around the Warrens’ house to torture the Generic Teen Babysitters inside, the movie does reach a few blissful moments of midnight movie mayhem. It just takes a lot of franchise place-setting effort to make it to that point, when you could just watch a standalone free-for-all like Hausu or The Gate and get ten times the payoff for 1/10th the effort.

I don’t care about the Warrens. I rarely tune into dispatches from The Conjurverse unless the individual film in question happens to touch on a subgenre I generally have a weakness for – like the killer doll movie. All I wanted to see here was a creepy doll torture some teens, and I was made to settle for the swerve of a decent haunted house movie instead, just like how Annabelle: Creation was a ghost story and the original Annabelle was a Rosemary’s Baby bastardization – not one genuine killer doll movie among them. It’s disappointing, then, to see this potentially bonkers free-for-all dampened so extensively by its franchise-building requirements. We eventually make our way to a very simple, contained haunted house story but not until after a lengthy frame story wherein the Warrens take a joy ride through an Ed Woodian graveyard only to disappear until the film’s conclusion. Also, because each monster’s appearance here is just an appetizer for a possible future spin-off, we only get a small taste of creatures like Werewolf Ghost so that we’re hungry for more Werewolf Ghost Content the next time it’s offered to us; and the cycle continues. Annabelle Comes Home is an adequate enough mainstream horror flick. It may even be the best Annabelle film to date, once it fully warms up. It just also participates in the worst tendencies of franchise filmmaking of the 2010s, which is getting more exhausting the more ubiquitous it becomes.

-Brandon Ledet

Child’s Play (2019)

I honestly have no idea why Orion Pictures bothered slapping the Child’s Play brand name on this evil-doll horror comedy, beyond the easy box office returns of its name recognition and the fact that its parent company, MGM, owned the rights. With a quick redesign of the killer Chucky doll and a few nodding references to the original franchise removed, Child’s Play (2019) could easily transform from a deviant remake of a beloved genre relic into an entirely new evil-doll franchise of its own design. Protective, enthusiastic fans of the original Don Mancini series have been cautions to support this corporate retooling of the director’s work, since he’s built a long-running series of passionate, campy, queer horror novelties out of the bizarro slasher premise for decades (with Brad Dourif in tow as the voice of the killer doll for the entire run). I can see how outside voices dialing the Chucky brand back to its origins for a franchise-resetting remake could feel like a betrayal to longtime superfans (especially since series steward Mancini is still making films & television shows featuring Dourif’s version of Chucky to this day). For casual fans like me, however, this MGM-sponsored blasphemy is an exciting development in Chucky lore. This is the exact right way to pull off a worthwhile remake: return to the original germ of an idea, strip away everything else, and then build something so new around it that it’s hardly recognizable. The 2019 Child’s Play remake would have been much more upsetting to me if it were a mindless, risk-adverse retread of what Mancini had already accomplished. Thankfully, it’s instead entirely its own thing separate from Mancini’s work, the ideal template for a decades-later revision.

While the 2019 Child’s Play is a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, it does ultimately amount to a similar effect. This feels like the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flicks kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them at too young of an age on cable. In addition to borrowing the Child’s Play brand name, this film also makes direct references to other titles in that exact inappropriate-kids’-horror-canon: The Texas Chain Massacre II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, RoboCop, etc. In that way, it reminds me more of what Charles Band accomplished with Full Moon Entertainment (which is overflowing with straight-to-VHS titles about killer dolls) than it does Mancini’s work under the Chucky brand. Like most of the Full Moon catalog, Child’s Play ’19 is a violent, R-Rated horror film that perversely feels like it was intended for an audience of children, which will have to sneak their way into a movie theater (or access to unsupervised late-night streaming) to enjoy it. That’s why I was bummed to see so few pro critics & Letterboxd mutuals have a good time with this over-the-top shlock. It’s so blatant about its efforts to tap back into the goofy, childlike imagination of the straight-to-VHS nasties of yesteryear that it even makes fun of the inane “That would never happen!” complaint that’s frequently lobbed at these things in the 2010s (during a slumber party screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II). I was saddened, then, to see real-life movie nerds critique the film for being silly & illogical as if those weren’t its selling points. As a collective audience, we could all benefit from lightening up & going with the flow instead of straining to “outsmart” the exact kind of genre candy we used to enjoy back when we had an imagination. It’s fucked up to say so, but I hope the right kids find this film at an inappropriate age, just like how I found titles like The Dentist & The Lady in White too young in my own day.

Mark Hamill takes over the vocal booth duties from Bard Dourif in this iteration, performing Chucky as a more of a Teddy Ruxpin cutie gone haywire than a misogynist murderer on bender. That’s because the remake drops the original film’s premise of a serial killer installing their own damned soul into a doll’s body via a mysterious Voodoo ritual in favor of something more “modern”: my beloved The Internet Is Trying To Kill Us horror subgenre. Newcomer director Lars Klevberg updates Chucky to the 2010s by giving him a Luddutian makeover as a malfunctioning piece of future-tech. The killer doll isn’t Evil, necessarily. Rather, he’s a symptom of what goes wrong when we automate too much of our daily lives, submitting our autonomy to computers in exchange for comfort. The Buddi doll is now a home appliance connected to every other automated tech in your house: lights, thermostats, self-driving cab services, home-use surveillance drones, The Cloud etc. When one of these dolls inevitably goes haywire through faulty programming, these conveniences now become an arsenal to dispose of humans who dare get in the way of his friendship with this “best buddy” (the child who owns him). Chucky himself has become a real-life horror of technology as well, as the animatronic puppet used in the film has been smoothed out into a distinct Uncanny Valley look that’s frequently bolstered with cheap CGI – meaning he’s often creepy though the limitations of his animation as much as anything else. It’s up to a ragtag group of neighborhood tykes to stop the doll before he causes too much havoc with all this future-tech, as the adults in their lives don’t believe something so innocent-looking & benign as a Buddi doll could possibly be responsible for the community’s murders. Similarly, it’s up to the kids in the audience (who really shouldn’t be there, the scamps) to preserve this deeply silly film’s legacy, since adults’ lack of imagination is failing them in real life too.

It would be easy to confuse the new Child’s Play for one of those standard modern-era remakes of 80s horror classics that mistake an origin story for the killer and a more generally self-serious, muted tone as an “improvement” in revision. This is a major studio production after all, one with recognizable faces like Aubrey Plaza & Brian Tyree Henry lurking in the cast. I was delighted to discover, then, that it’s something much stranger & more unapologetically goofy than that: a film that’s too violent for children but far too silly for adults, the exact formula that made early Child’s Play movies cult classics in the first place. There may be some 2010s-specific updates to the material in the technophobia of Chucky’s design and the Adult Swim-type glitch edits & meme humor that accompanies it, but otherwise this feels like a perfect 80s horror throwback. It recalls the over-the-top delirium of basic cable & VHS horror from the era, while also exceeding as an entirely new, silly thing of its own design. It’s damn fun, an it’s a damn shame how few people have remembered how to have fun with ludicrous genre films of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, the latest entry in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation, has quickly earned the reputation of being a huge improvement on the film that came before it, to the point where its predecessor is entirely skippable so that you can get to the good stuff. 2014’s Annabelle was indeed a huge letdown even for the most dedicated of evil doll horror films, essentially burying what’s an incredibly powerful villain design under a hopelessly generic Rosemary’s Baby riff nobody asked for. That setup made it near effortless for its prequel, Annabelle: Creation, to exceed expectations, something Lights Out director David F. Samberg does with ease. Samberg’s slick production design & impressive control over jump scares & haunted house atmosphere makes for a surprisingly decent Annabelle corrective, delivering an evil doll-themed major studio horror similar to the machine-like precision of last year’s financially beastly adaptation of IT. As someone who’s always a sucker for evil doll horror as a genre, however, I have to admit I still don’t believe the Annabelle franchise is living up to its full potential. Creation is a well-made major studio horror movie, but it’s one that largely ignores the brilliant design of the evil doll at its center; it’s hardly an evil doll movie at all.

A 1940s doll maker & his religiously faithful wife lose their young daughter (named Annabelle, duh) in a freak accident, sending their lives into a depressive tailspin. Over a decade later, they open their home as a makeshift orphanage out of religious duty, bringing a fresh crop of young girls & their corresponding caretaker nun into the now-haunted house. Enter the titular doll Annabelle, whom the dead daughter’s spirit has taken residence in and uses to scare & maim her soul-weary parents’ new boarders. Unfortunately, the doll itself is used more as set dressing and a talisman than a direct threat in the film’s various scares & kills. Samberg has a sharp mind for tapping into the nightmare logic of a scared child: lights go out without explanation, hallways stretch into infinity, traditional sources of terror like a ghost under a sheet or the crack between a bed & wall are reinforced with a genuine sense of dread. This collection of haunted house scares feels entirely separate from Annabelle herself, however. Instead of directly using her in the film’s kills, Creation brings in other threats in the form of creepy nuns & demons made of black smoke, unsure how to deliver on the basic pleasures of a creepy doll horror flick.

As with a lot of films in the post-MCU mode of franchise filmmaking, Annabelle: Creation feels like it’s torn in too many directions trying to satisfy its position in a larger, franchised story. The movie concludes with a lengthy, unnecessary epilogue connecting it to the opening minutes of the first Annabelle feature, establishing above-and-beyond continuity for a film practically no one remembers or values. It’s also tasked with teasing an upcoming horror film about demonic nuns to be set in The Conjureverse, plainlly titled The Nun. What really bothered me, though, is that Creation finds its scares in the dollmaker’s haunted home, not the evil doll he created, which connects the film to the haunted house themes of the original The Conjuring movie at the expense of a super creepy doll that’s used as a prop instead of an active player. I can totally back Annabelle: Creation as a well-made major studio horror film and an improvement on the previous Annabelle entry. Hell, I’d even cite it as an improvement on Samberg’s work in Lights Out, a film I found to be a thematically repugnant carbon copy of The Babadook. It’s still not as great as a proper Annabelle film could be, though, which won’t arrive until this franchise involves its killer-looking doll in its onscreen kills, something that should’ve been a given from the start.

-Brandon Ledet

Cathy’s Curse (1977)

EPSON MFP image

three star

After a few decades in which the film fell into the public domain as a recobbled, poorly transferred, discolored, nigh-unwatchable piece of garbage, a restoration and Blu-ray release from Severin Films means a whole new generation can see Cathy’s Curse (aka Cauchemars, literally “nightmares,” the film’s original/French title) in all of its… glory?

The 1970s were banner years for the burgeoning Canuxploitation film industry, as our neighbor to the north saw a boom in production due to an increase in the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) due to new tax shelter laws instituted to encourage Canadian filmmakers. Theretofore, most of these funds had gone toward producing documentaries, an influence which is evident in the observational, cinéma vérité nature of many of the films that followed regardless of genre; beginning in 1971, the Canadian Film Development Corporation pushed filmmakers to focus on those films that were more commercially viable in an attempt to recoup some of this funding. From this push we got the early films of our dearly beloved David Cronenberg, as well as great work from Bob Clark, who was recruited from Florida to lend his experience to the Canadian industry.

Of course, the exploitation of tax shelters is nothing new, and the availability of public funding has doubtlessly led to the implementation of various Producers-style bombs quickly slap-dashed together to take advantage of available funding. Cathy’s Curse is notably a tax shelter baby, although it’s much better than many other films that were created for similarly inartistic reasons.

The film opens on Mr. Gimble in 1947, who returns to his home to learn that his elementary-aged daughter Laura has been left alone by her mother, who absconded with Laura’s younger brother George. Mr. Gimble tells the little girl that her mother is a bitch, and that she will pay for what she did to Laura; I’m noting this here because, even in the remastered director’s cut, we never learn exactly what Mrs. Gimble did or why Mr. Gimble is so bitter about it. The two race away, and when the car swerves to avoid a rabbit in the road, both Mr. Gimble and young Laura are burned alive in the resultant crash.

Some thirty years later, George (Alan Scarfe, who played not one but two Romulans in Star Trek: The Next Generation) returns to the still-pristine house with his wife Vivian (Beverly Murray) and daughter Cathy (Randi Allen). Vivian has recently lost the couple’s second child and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, lending her character a kind of otherworldly removal from the events at hand and planting the seeds for George to shrug off her concerns as the result of an inscrutable mental illness later in the film. Upon arrival, the family is greeted by housekeeper Mary (Dorothy Davis) and repairman Paul (Roy Witham), and Cathy befriends some neighboring children.

On the day of a pre-arranged play date, Cathy goes upstairs to get some rest beforehand, but is drawn to the home’s spacious attic, where she discovers a portrait of her dead aunt as well as a rag doll with sewn-shut eyes. The portrait’s eyes glow an eerie green, and so begins Cathy’s possession. While playing with the other children, she uses them to re-enact the night of Laura’s death, including urging one of the boys to say “All women are bitches!” The mother of these children, meanwhile, has tea with Vivian and another friend (Mary Morter), who identifies herself as a medium and has a full on psychic freakout after holding a picture of Laura and George’s father, complete with deep-voiced recitations and lots of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place-style rapid cuts. This is interrupted when one of the children cries out after Cathy cuts her.

The connection between Cathy and the doll deepens, as she sees Laura reflected in her mirror instead of herself, and poor Mary is killed, as is Paul’s dog. Vivian is sent to a sanitarium for a while and Paul is tasked with watching Cathy during the day while George attends to unspecified business at a construction site. Paul himself is subjected to hallucinations and suddenly-manifesting lesions, but Cathy keeps him around (and drunk) apparently for her own amusement and perhaps in recognition that she needs to keep at least one person alive to take care of her while George is away. The medium returns more than once to the house and is continuously rebuffed by Cathy and a drunken Paul when she asks for Vivian, before a nightmare hallucination sends her out of the house and out of the film for good (she’s set up as almost like a Father Merrin type, but her appearances end up contributing nothing to the film).

Vivian returns home, and her protestations that something is deeply wrong with Cathy are dismissed by George with increasing irritation and accusations that her mental illness is tearing the family apart. Not helping is the fact that Cathy is a perfect angel when in her father’s presence, and her truly innocent nature seems to be, at times, attempting to exert itself. After a final confrontation, George ultimately sees the truth and Vivian saves her daughter’s soul by removing the stitches from the doll’s eyes, forcing the evil presence out of the house and their daughter.

For a low-budget attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist with some overtones from The Omen (complete with a nanny dying from a fall from an upper floor, although even a woman Mary’s age would probably survive a fall from the second story), Cathy’s Curse is decent, but nothing exciting or terribly special. There are plenty of laughs to be had, but it’s unclear which, if any, are intentional; my favorite is in the scene where the newly-possessed Cathy throws her cereal bowl across the room and Mary, thinking this was an accident, picks up approximately four pieces of broken china from a pile of dozens of shards and cheerfully declares “There, all better!” There’s also some humor gleaned from the possessed Cathy’s dirty mouth, where attempts to mimic the truly revolting and soul-crushing diatribes voiced by Regan in The Exorcist come across as distinctly Canadian in the script’s unwillingness to go too far.

Still, the film isn’t lacking in mid-budget charm. The restoration of the film may not be worth spending time to track down and watch, but if it happens to fall into your lap, there’s a moderately good time to be had.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #2 of The Swampflix Podcast: Evil Doll Movies & Boxing Helena (1993)

inaworld

Welcome to Episode #2 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our much-delayed second episode, James & Brandon discuss movies about evil dolls with fellow contributor Britnee. Also, James makes Brandon watch Jennifer Lynch’s body horror melodrama Boxing Helena (1994) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The guitar riff musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-James Cohn, Brandon Ledet, and Britnee Lombas

Dead Silence (2007)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

campstamp

Dolls are creepy. The horror genre is opportunistic. The rest is history. Of course, individual moviegoers’ mileage may vary on that first point. Our particular fears & points of reference for creepiness can range as widely & specifically as our sexual fetishes & turn-ons, but I can at least speak for myself in saying that Dolls. Are. The. Worst. Especially the older porcelain ones, with their aged lace & cold, distant expressions. I hate ’em. I hate ’em even more than most people hate clowns (not that I have a lot of love for those fuckers either). Still, I love watching dolls act creepy in trashy horror movies, because they’re so effortlessly effective. Like a true evil doll fetishist, I dedicated my annual Halloween-inspired horror binge last October to watching every evil doll movie I could find. It was a quest that lead me to watching Dolls, Devil Doll, Dolly Dearest, Demonic Toys, Trilogy of Terror, Pin, Magic, Annabelle, Asylum, Puppet Master 4: The Demon, and possibly a couple titles I’ve forgotten all in the span of a month. As I crowdsourced my selections, both online & with “real life” friends, it’s a wonder that no one suggested that I watch James Wan’s Dead Silence during this devil doll binge. Dead Silence is a fun little horror flick & a worthy addition to the evil doll genre, easily better than half the titles I just listed.

In just a few pictures, James Wan has racked up a nice little collection of genre film oddities to his name (films like Saw, The Conjuring, the Insidious franchise, etc.), but with the exception of his most recent/expensive production (Furious 7) I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed his work quite as much as I enjoyed Dead Silence. With the same love Furious 7 brought to the grotesquely excessive action film genre, Dead Silence displays a giddily thorough love for the world of trashy horror. It’s a pretty standard issue evil doll movie, for sure, one that narrows in only slightly on the insular world of evil ventriloquism. Still, within this frame Wan makes room for horror tropes of all kinds: foggy graveyards, evil toymakers, spooky mansions, flashing red & blue lights, oldtimey flashback footage, Argento’s slashing straight razor, Freddy Krueger’s from-beyond-the-grave-curse style of revenge, goofy/killer catchphrases (“Who’s the dummy?”), and the list goes on. This may be an evil doll movie, but really it’s all over the place. If there is any particular brand of horror that Wan zeroes in on here it’d be the work of shameless direct-to-video schlockmeister Charles Band, figurehead of Full Moon Features. I’m not just talking obvious points of reference like Band’s productions Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, and Dolls. The general vibe of Dead Silence is of a large budget version of Full Moon Entertainment’s entire aesthetic. I can tell you from experience that it takes a lot of love for trash cinema to find Full Moon’s overall vibe worthy of affection or even minimal effort, but after watching Dead Silence that’s something I assume James Wan has in spades.

The exact story Dead Silence tells doesn’t matter too, too much. There’s a local curse that haunts the residents of a small community thanks to the mysterious death of a wicked ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, who (true to the film’s vast collection of old hat horror tropes) has her own nursery rhyme that kids like to repeat ominously: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, be sure you never, ever scream or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.” This ventriloquist ghost, of course, possesses the collection of dolls she left behind in her wake (wow, I kinda wish someone would reimagine this as a gory mockery of Jeff Dunham’s act), employing the not-so-inanimate bastards to avenge her death. Mary sometimes mimics/projects the voices of her would-be victims’ loved ones to lure them into vulnerable situation, which is a horror trope in its own way, but it’s at least one that fits in snuggly with the film’s ventriloquism theme. There’s exactly one invention (that at least I’ve never seen before) that Wan brings to the table here: in her quest to create “the perfect doll”, Mary Shaw turns her victims’ corpses into doll-like playthings, which leads to one hilariously over-the-top last minute reveal. Charles Band has tried to do a lot more with a lot less, I assure you, and the “perfect doll” angle & last second twist are plenty justification on their own for Dead Silence‘s place in the evil doll genre.

Otherwise, Dead Silence delivers exactly what you’d expect from a formulaic evil doll horror flick, but it at least does it from a place of love. That’s more than you can say for last year’s major studio return to the evil doll formula, the unbearably dull Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Anabelle (which, oddly enough, was a spin-off of Wan’s film The Conjuring). Dead Silence survives on its ambiance, cheap scares, and evil doll designs more than its barely competent acting & dialogue, but honestly that’s okay. Those kinds of shortcomings are just yet another old hat horror trope, fitting in perfectly with the movie’s trashy genre film charms. Besides, Dead Silence didn’t have to try too hard in the first place, since dolls are perfectly creepy enough on their own without help from basic things like a decent script or believable performances. Seriously, dolls are the worst. As long as a horror movie is willing to acknowledge that point, the rest is lagniappe.

SIDE NOTE: I appreciated Dead Silence‘s attention to sound, which is evident even in its title. There was plenty of ominous dead silence that allowed space for simple effects like the wooden creaking of the ventriloquist dolls’ eyes moving slightly to register as highly effective. Again, I feel like this is just more attention to detail from Wan, who’s obviously well aware that sound design is a large part of what makes horror tick.

-Brandon Ledet