How Not to Plot a Horror Film by Matt Colborn

CaptureAs a writer you can sometimes learn more from dysfunctional stories than from masterpieces. Take the 2017 movie Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the earlier rather mediocre prequel Annabelle (2014). The 2017 movie, directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Gary Dauberman, is well made, well cast and in places scary, yet somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Annabelle the creepy porcelain doll first appeared in the opening minutes of The Conjuring (2013, dir: James Wan), scripted by Chad and Carey Hayes. The Annabelle sequence was based on an allegedly true case, an account of which can be found in Annabelle: The Cursed Doll by Taffy Sealyham. The doll in the case was a raggedy Anne that was reported to move by itself, and was investigated by the demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.

In the Conjuring, the raggedy Anne was replaced by a very sinister Victorian style doll that menaces a group of nurses. The nurses report to the Warrens that they’re ‘beyond terrified’ because they accidentally gave permission to the ghost of a little girl to inhabit the doll. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) explains that in fact the ‘little girl’ was a demonic entity who intended to possess one of them. Annabelle gets locked in a glass cabinet in the Warren’s basement, and the doll only has an incidental role in the rest of the film.

There’s an often ignored rule in supernatural horror that less is more. The Annabelle sequence in The Conjuring is more effective for its insinuations than for what you actually see.

Annabelle Still 2The plot in Annabelle:Creation is as follows. In 1943, a dollmaker, Mullins and his wife lose their daughter in a tragic car accident. Twelve years later, they open their home to Sister Charlotte and the six orphan girls in her charge. The polio-crippled orphan, Janice, becomes haunted by a porcelain doll who is controlled by a demon. Sister Charlotte and the orphans are then subjected to a number of supernatural attacks.

One problem with the film is over-exposure. Those familiar with the earlier movies know what to expect from Annabelle. Whereas in the 2013 movie we have brief hints of her malevolent powers, in the 2017 movie we have the full banquet and this dilutes the effect. As mentioned, this is also a second prequel, and suffers from the perennial problem of diminished returns.

The second major problem is an unfocussed, over-busy script. There are too many characters and often too much happening. This significantly dilutes the effectiveness of the core scenes, and results in a messy climax. So Janice gets possessed in the barn, Mullins gets got by the demon then straightaway, Janice’s friend, Linda almost gets dragged down the well by pallid hands. Sister Charlotte levitates, the orphan teenagers try and fail to escape in the car. One gets cornered by a scarecrow in the barn, Linda flees to the blind waiter and gets menaced by a possessed Janice in a scary bedroom.

In this situation, it’s difficult to identify or even sympathise with the protagonists. The possession of Janice, for example, should be horrific, but in the end we’re so distracted from her plight by everything else that it’s actually difficult to care very much.

Annabelle still

This overstuffing of elements in a relatively short film of less than two hours also means that the pacing doesn’t quite work. Pacing is essential in supernatural horror because you need time to relax in between scares. Supernatural terror relies upon ‘negative spaces’ for its maximum effect: without them a film’s just a ghost train.

At one point Janice gets attacked in the house at night. A moment later, she’s relaxing in her wheelchair in the sun, when a nun-entity pushes her into the barn just in time for her possession via a ghost vomiting black slime. The pace is simply too fast for the emotional impact of the events to register.

These pacing problems mean that the director is forced to over-rely on jump scares. Jump scares, where tonally things are quiet AND THEN SUDDENLY REALLY LOUD are a substitute for proper plotting. They’re the cinematic equivalent of leaping out from behind a bush and shouting BOO!!! They are also the bane of modern horror movies.

So Annabelle: Creation fails to achieve its potential as a supernatural horror film. This is a shame, because even off-the-shelf modern gothic tropes can be effective with good characters and well constructed plots. That’s something to think about when binging on Netflix horror movies this Hallowe’en.

 

IMG_1200Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk

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About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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