Hello, Horror fans.
Time for another episode of “Night Terrors”. I’ve held it off a while, as I did two consecutive ones during our “Avco/Embassy”-week. This time the theme is as simple as “two movies that have female first names as titles”. I know – it’s an ambitious one. Took me months to come up with it.
“Annabelle” is a prequel/spin-off to James Wan’s massive horror hit of 2013, “The Conjuring” – which was based on the “true stories” of the lives of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The “Annabelle”-story – a tale of a doll that may or may not have been possessed by demonic forces (and is placed in the Warren’s Room of Evil Objects and as the legend says “a priest visits the doll twice a month to bless it“) was just a little pre-credits set up-scene in that film but, as this is Hollywood, of course that story of that doll had to be told as a stand-alone film. Director James Wan had decided to give horror genre a rest and was already deep in the middle of the tragic and exhausting production of “Furious 7”, so John R. Leonetti – the cinematographer of “The Conjuring” – took the director’s chair this time around. Well – did they manage to bring anything fresh and new to the genre of “Creepy Evil Doll”-movies (such as Richard Attenborough’s “Magic“, Stuart Gordon’s “Dolls“, Full Moon Pictures’ “Puppet Master“-series, the “Child’s Play“-series and of course Wan’s “Dead Silence“), or did they just fall flat on their face? Let’s see….
The story begins with a recap to the prologue of “The Conjuring“, as we are reminded of the doll and then we quickly cut back to one year earlier and meet a young couple, John (Ward Horton) and Mia Form (Annabelle Wallis), who are living in Santa Monica and expecting their first child. Mia, a doll collector, gets a rare doll as a present from her husband. It’s 1969 and evil is afoot, as we see in the television news reports of the Manson Family. One night, the Form’s neighbors are murdered in a ritualistic killing by the neighbor’s daughter Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend. As John and Mia investigate, the couple attack them. The police arrive in a nick of time and gun down the boyfriend. Annabelle, locked in a room with the doll, slices her own throat and bleeds to death spilling some blood on it. After the attack, Mia orders John to throw the doll away. As John is out of town on a medical conference, their house catches fire. Mia is barely saved, but the shock launches her birth. As they move into a new apartment building in Pasadena, the doll is discovered to be in their packed things. Strange things begin to occur – only witnessed by Mia and her baby: noises, objects moving, scary appearances and the increasingly creepier looking doll seeming to be linked to it all. Making some investigations of her own, with the help of her neighbor, a bookstore keeper named Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) and their church’s priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola), Mia discovers that the Higgins girl and her boyfriend were attempting to conjure up some evil demonic entity known as “The Ram” – which may now be possessing the doll and is after her newborn child’s soul.
Okay – first things first; how does cinematographer John R. Leonetti fare as the director? After all, his previous directing credits include such a gem as “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation“. Having photographed five of James Wan’s previous films (“Dead Silence“, “Death Sentence“, “Insidious 1-2” and “The Conjuring“), he certainly is able to mimic Wan’s style of filming horror – which is usually comprised of long, wandering takes that suddenly explode into horror beats. But sadly, Leonetti does not possess Wan’s very natural sense of pacing. Outside of a couple of effective sequences (especially the ritual murder of the first neighbors, which for the majority of time is played as a long one-shot), it mostly plays as a “cover band”-version of James Wan. And that matter is not helped by the script basically compiling every possible trope of the more known “demonic possession”-films; there are bits of “The Exorcist“, a spoonful or two of “Amityville Horror” and some drippings of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown around there. It plays like “look, were trying to tell a true story, but look at all the cool movies we’re riffing on here!“. He even throws a few visual nods to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in there. Yes, John – we saw that movie too…
This is not helped with the fact that the lead couple is inexcusably bland. Horton and Wallis look like a couple of soap opera-actors (Horton actually HAS acted in “One Life To Live“, so I wasn’t terribly off the mark there!), who have accidentally stumbled onto a horror movie-set. Not in any point of the movie do you care about these two or about what happens to them. The only two actors who manage to do anything with their parts are Alfre Woodard as the neighbor who has some knowledge of things beyond our world and Amendola, who makes the most of his “Trope Priest in a demonic possession-movie“-role. One could say, that the one really cool re-used thing from the “Stable of James Wan” in this movie is the film’s composer Joseph Bishara – who once again plays the dual role of composer as well as donning on the prosthetics as the main demon character, “Ram”. Bishara is plenty scary looking in real life and always brings an extra creepy factor into his creature performances – not to mention that his score is “nails on a chalkboard”-effective once again. As a conclusion: this film is definitely of DTV-quality, but for some reason it was shipped to theaters.
And of course it made $255 million on a $6.5 million budget, so what the hell do I know…?
Director: Henry Hobson
Writer: John Scott III
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to movies after his stint as the “Governator” has been patchy to say the least. His little cameos in the “Expendables“-films were mainly just winks at the genre audience, and he was definitely showing his age as his movements and “acting” were clunky at best (especially in “EX2”). “The Last Stand” was actually a pretty fun ride, and he was definitely the best thing in “Escape Plan“-actually giving what I’d call an “acting” performance. In “Sabotage” he was pretty smartly cast a bit against his usual “type”, but the movie in itself was something(or moreofathing) of a mess. So everybody was a bit surprised, when the first information of “Maggie” came out. Arnold, playing a farmer whose daughter is infected by a zombie virus? Well that’s definitely different. And an independent film, no less – with a $1.4 million budget, that probably wouldn’t cover even half of the catering on a movie like “Terminator: Genisys“? One could say that the Arnold today is pretty much where Clint Eastwood was back in the early 90’s, just before he made “Unforgiven“: an ageing action star, coming off a string of flops and finally deciding to show his age and do a true character piece and putting all of his tools to play – both behind the camera and in front of it. The only problem with Arnold in that though is that he’s not a director. But the word started to spread that this was a real bona fide acting part for him. So – to put it bluntly: is “Maggie” Arnold’s “Unforgiven“? Let’s find out.
The story begins in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie pandemic, caused by something called the “Necroambulist” virus. A radio newsreader informs us, that in the last 3 months, the amount of new infections has decreased rapidly, but the remaining society is in a disarray – with a large part of the population either dead, missing or quaranteed. Farmer Wade Vogel (Arnold) drives to the city to pick up his daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from a hospital’s isolation ward. She’s been bit by a carrier and has between “6-8” weeks before she will turn. The government has ordered families to deliver their infected family members into Quarantine after they begin to show certain symptoms, but we learn that these places are basically Hells On Earth, where all the infected are thrown together, regardless of their stage of the disease, so it’s basically “people eating people“. Wade does not want this for Maggie, so he wants to say goodbye to his daughter in his own way. The children of Wade and his second wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), Bobby and Molly, are sent to stay with Caroline’s sister while Maggie spends her last few weeks at home. Maggie’s condition starts to slowly deteriorate as the infection spreads, causing her to lose her appetite for regular food and instead begin to crave living flesh. After an infected neighbor’s boy, Trent (Bryce Romero), is taken away after his disease has progressed to this point, the local lawmen insist that Wade let Maggie be taken away too, he angrily drives them off and gets the options from his friend, the town’s doctor Vern (Jodie Moore); give her to quarantine, administer a medical cocktail that will kill her (but causes serious pain right until the end) or “make it quick“. The question now remains; can Wade do what has to be done before it’s too late?
Labeling “Maggie” as a zombie film is kinda selling it short, honestly. It’s much more an analogy of a loved one falling ill with a terminal disease, and the life-long question of euthanasia; “what would you do?” It’s a character piece, of a father and a daughter making do with the little time they have left together and the tough choices that have to be made, as the illness progresses. Hobson – who comes from the world of title designing – films this with a hand-held, free floating camera that – and I’m trying my best to sound like a completely anal film snob here – actually brings in mind some shades of Terrence Malick’s work. But without any explanatory voice-over narrations. It’s a film of not that much dialogue, but of just the silent moments of life. Not counting a few select moments of color, the film’s color palette is mostly on the grey side – kind of like on John Hillcoat’s “The Road“, just a few shades up from being a black & white. And the post-apocalyptic angle is well played, as we only see the aftermath of a zombie outbreak but are really never given any info on how it started and what caused it.
So, how does Arnold do with all of this? I’d have to say – pretty damn well. There has been a tendency in his recent films of him kind of over-selling the fact that he’s getting old. I mean, REALLY over-selling it. There’s none of that here. He just…is. It’s probably the most subdued performance he has ever given in his 40+ years in the motion picture-business. There is none of his larger than life-personality at display here. And Abigail Breslin? Let’s face it – she’s been a pro ever since she first appeared in “Little Miss Sunshine” and she just seems to get better as she grows older. Seeing her body and mind slowly deteriorating as the story progresses is a “body horror”-performance right up there with the great ones, like Jeff Goldblum’s in Cronenberg’s “The Fly“. It’s also an interesting side-piece to her work as a zombie-killer in the movie “Zombieland“.
And let’s face it – this is mostly a film of those two; sure – Joely Richardson makes what she can of the part of Wade’s second wife and Maggie’s stepmother Caroline, and there’s a haunting scene where Wade confronts Bonnie – the wife of his zombified neighbor that he killed, as well as some encounters with the town’s sheriff’s and the town’s doctor, but this is Schwarzenegger’s and Breslin’s film – 100%. It’s a truly haunting piece and I have a feeling that it’s gonna be something that people will revisit in the future.There’s also an interesting little echo in the beginning of the film, as Arnold is driving alone through the abandoned cityscapes, of that unfilmed adaptation of “I Am Legend” that he was at one time gonna do with Ridley Scott before the project fell apart and Scott’s attention turned to “Gladiator” instead. I don’t know why, but those scenes sort of reminded me of that which could have been.
Is it his “Unforgiven“? Well, I gotta say it’s pretty goddamn close.