Just the right crowd to have some playtime with this doll

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Jen Yam­ato

Cin­e­matic uni­verses are all the rage these days, thanks to the bil­lion-dol­lar boun­ties of Marvel’s Avengers-verse and the com­pet­ing DC squad led by Bat­man, Su­per­man and Won­der Woman. But as Hollywood’s fran­chise-mak­ing scheme du jour has crept into other gen­res, it’s also proven that you can’t guar­an­tee suc­cess, as ev­i­denced by Uni­ver­sal’s re­cent Dark Uni­verse-launch­ing clunker “The Mummy,” the di­min­ish­ing re­turns of Para­mount’s “Trans­form­ers: The Last Knight” and Sony’s dis­ap­point­ing “The Dark Tower.”

Yet in Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Con­jur­ing” films and the spinoff pre­quel “Annabelle,” con­tem­po­rary horror has made a po­tent first stab at in­ter­con­nected uni­verse-build­ing. The first three films in the “Con­jur­ing” uni­verse cre­ated by film­maker James Wan have racked up a cu­mu­la­tive $897 mil­lion world­wide to date, and the fourth en­try in the se­ries, “Annabelle: Cre­ation,” opens Friday boast­ing both a no­tice­able leap for­ward in pro­duc­tion value and ro­bustly pos­i­tive re­views.

Not bad for a pre­quel to a spinoff about an evil doll. Chucky, who slashed his way through six “Child’s Play” movies and has a sev­enth on the way, would be proud.

Set in a gothic 1950s farm­house far re­moved from the 1970s-era su­per­nat­u­ral sleuthing of para­nor­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tors Ed and Lor­raine War­ren,

whose case files in­spired “The Con­jur­ing,” “Annabelle: Cre­ation” crafts a vivid tale of how Annabelle the doll came to be be­fore she wound up in the War­rens’ su­per­nat­u­ral col­lec­tion.

The mys­tery in­volves a grieving doll maker, Sa­muel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), and his wife, Es­ther (Mi­randa Otto), who welcome six or­phaned girls and their guardian, Sis­ter Char­lotte (“Miss Bala”’s Stephanie Sig­man), to share their cav­ernous two-story home­stead.

Unfortunately, as young po­lio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman) dis­cov­ers while nav­i­gat­ing shad­owy hall­ways, for­bid­den rooms and other bumps in the night in her new digs — they’re not alone.

And, of course, there are Easter eggs planted through­out the film al­lud­ing to past and fu­ture films in the grow­ing “Con­jur­ing” uni­verse.

A rel­a­tively bud­get-con­scious sleeper suc­cess like “The Con­jur­ing” may not have seemed a nat­u­ral choice to spawn a cin­e­matic mul­ti­verse, but Wan’s stu­dio bosses are al­ready so con­fi­dent that they’ve an­nounced more stan­dalones to come — “The Nun,” due in 2018 from di­rec­tor Corin Hardy, and “The Crooked Man” — not to men­tion a third “Con­jur­ing” film.

It was while mak­ing 2013’s “The Con­jur­ing” that Wan — who had the suc­cess­ful “Saw” se­ries and bud­ding fran­chise-starter, “In­sid­i­ous,” un­der his belt — saw the po­ten­tial in ex­pand­ing the world by ze­ro­ing in on the War­rens’ col­lec­tion of spooky relics. The same year, co­in­ci­den­tally, Warner Bros. launched its in­ter­con­nected DC Ex­tended Uni­verse with “Bat­man v. Su­per­man” pre­cur­sor “Man of Steel.”

“It was some­thing that came up pretty or­gan­i­cally,” Wan said from the set of “Aqua­man,” the sixth in­stall­ment in the DCEU and the horror vet­eran’s first ven­ture into the world of big­bud­get su­per­hero block­busters. Im­mersed in the world of “The Con­jur­ing” while de­sign­ing the mu­seum of haunted ar­ti­facts col­lected by the War­rens, he won­dered: Were there more sto­ries to be told in these ob­jects?

The first spinoff, “Annabelle,” was shot on a $5-mil­lion bud­get in 25 days, di­rected by long­time Wan cine­matog­ra­pher John R. Leonetti from a script by Gary Dauber­man. Set in the decade prior to “The Con­jur­ing,” it imag­ined a Man­son­era back­story to the real Annabelle doll that still re­sides un­der glass in the War­rens’ Connecticut mu­seum with a warn­ing: “Pos­i­tively do not open.” Crit­ics weren’t im­pressed, but au­di­ences f locked to the mul­ti­plex, and “Annabelle” ended up with a $256 mil­lion global take. Af­ter steer­ing Uni­ver­sal’s high­pro­file “Fu­ri­ous 7” in­stall­ment in Hollywood’s ar­guably most adap­tive block­buster fran­chise, Wan re­turned to his horror roots to di­rect “The Con­jur­ing 2,” which grossed $320 mil­lion and stoked fan in­ter­est in the bur­geon­ing uni­verse.

Big­ger this time

Charg­ing ahead on an “Annabelle” pre­quel that would ex­plore the ori­gin of the de­mon­i­cally pos­sessed doll — this time with a big­ger bud­get, more shoot­ing days, and a more ex­pan­sive story — pro­duc­ers Wan and Peter Safran hired di­rec­tor David F. Sand­berg, the Swede who’d shown a sure hand trans­form­ing his own nobud­get vi­ral short film into “Lights Out,” a nerve-fray­ing de­but fea­ture that scored more than $148 mil­lion world­wide on a lim­ited bud­get for Wan’s Atomic Mon­ster pro­duc­tion shingle.

With a script by “Annabelle” scribe Dauber­man that gave the tit­u­lar doll an ori­gin story grounded in themes of fam­ily, loss, and tragic des­per­a­tion, Sand­berg un­der­went a cast­ing search for the ensem­ble of multi-gen­er­a­tional ac­tresses who would carry “Annabelle: Cre­ation.”

“We were very open — we au­di­tioned all sorts of na­tion­al­i­ties and we weren’t set on char­ac­ters hav­ing to be [cer­tain] ages,” Sand­berg re­called on a re­cent day in Franklin Vil­lage, near where he and “Lights Out” col­lab­o­ra­tor and wife Lotte Losten now live.

He found his lead in 15year-old Bateman — her brother, Gabriel Bateman, co­in­ci­den­tally starred in “Lights Out” — who brings preter­nat­u­ral depth to the ob­ject of Annabelle’s sin­is­ter in­ten­tions. Her 11-year-old costar Lulu Wil­son had ex­pe­ri­ence act­ing in an un­ex­pect­edly classy horror pre­quel thanks to “Ouija: Ori­gin of Evil,” and makes the most of a meaty role as Linda, Janice’s BFF, who has a par­tic­u­larly har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with a creaky dumb­waiter. Most im­por­tant, the film’s ensem­ble breathes life into the re­la­tion­ships and themes that help “Annabelle: Cre­ation” de­liver more than clever set pieces and jump scares.

Wan’s guid­ing in­flu­ence in cin­e­matic uni­verse-build­ing? Tak­ing more cues from the small screen than the Marvel blue­print. “I ac­tu­ally equate cin­e­matic uni­verses more to long-form TV sto­ry­telling — I’ve al­ways said that the ‘Con­jur­ing’ uni­verse in some ways plays like a clas­sic ‘mon­ster of the week’ episodic, like ‘X-Files’ or ‘Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer,’ a se­rial with an over­ar­ch­ing sto­ry­line that ties back to the main char­ac­ters,” he said.

Feel­ing in­ven­tive

“Annabelle: Cre­ation” also em­braces a clas­si­cal film­mak­ing style, max­i­mized by shoot­ing on cus­tom-built sets that al­lowed Sand­berg and cine­matog­ra­pher Maxime Alexan­dre to move freely and stage se­quences with in­ven­tion.

“It gets bor­ing when you shoot just stan­dard cov­er­age, the same thing over and over,” said Sand­berg, who had a sprawl­ing mul­ti­story in­te­rior built on the Warner Bros. lot. “I also wanted the movie to be beau­ti­ful, be­cause I feel that horror movies can still look beau­ti­ful — it doesn’t mean they’re less scary.”

To shoot the film’s ex­te­rior scenes, in­clud­ing a mem­o­rably chill­ing day­light se­quence in­volv­ing a wheel­chair, a barn and de­monic pos­ses­sion, Sand­berg ’s crew took over the Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Val­ley — which is why sharp-eyed view­ers might rec­og­nize the Mullins’ home from HBO’s “West­world.” “That’s the house where [Evan Rachel Wood’s char­ac­ter] Dolores lives,” Sand­berg said with a smile. “But it looks very dif­fer­ent in our movie.”

“Annabelle: Cre­ation” was a gi­ant leap for a rel­a­tive new­comer like Sand­berg, who grew up weaned on VHS horror clas­sics like “Night­mare on Elm Street,” “Fright Night,” “Evil Dead” and, yes, “Child’s Play.” But like Wan, Sand­berg is the lat­est in­die horror di­rec­tor to make the jump to su­per­hero film­mak­ing: Ear­lier this year he landed at the helm of New Line’s “Shazam,” based on the DC Comics char­ac­ter, which he’s prep­ping while de­vel­op­ing “Lights Out 2.”

“Horror is re­ally dif­fi­cult to pull off, as ev­i­denced by the re­ally bad horror that’s out there,” he said, laugh­ing. “So if you can do that, be­cause it’s both tech­ni­cal and tonal, then it helps tak­ing on any­thing else — and usu­ally the bud­gets [in horror] are a lot lower, so you have to be in­ven­tive.”

Wan, who’s more than half­way through film­ing on his Jason Mo­moa-led “Aqua­man,” agrees that the tools cul­ti­vated in in­die horror — learn­ing to play your au­di­ence for scares and ner­vous laughs while man­ag­ing typ­i­cally mi­nus­cule bud­gets — makes fer­tile train­ing ground for stu­dio block­buster gigs.

“I think [stu­dios] are look­ing be­yond the fact that we might not be ex­pe­ri­enced in ac­tion and visual ef­fects, but they can see that what we care about are char­ac­ters and sto­ry­telling, and that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “It’s not a bad trend for us genre film­mak­ers — we’re no longer [looked] down at, as much as it used to be. More power to in­die horror film di­rec­tors!”

With a foot in two cin­e­matic uni­verses and some of horror’s most prof­itable fran­chises to his name, Wan might be one of the most qual­i­fied ex­perts in Hollywood to ex­pound on the se­cret to weav­ing in­ter­con­nect­ing movie mytholo­gies.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to make sure you have in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters and an in­ter­est­ing story to tell. Be­cause you might have this amaz­ing, grand, master scheme of a plan — but if you tell a story that no one re­ally cares about,” he said with a laugh, “it’s kind of point­less.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

THE “ANNABELLE: Cre­ation” team in­cludes, from left, di­rec­tor David F. Sand­berg, and ac­tors Talitha Bateman, Stephanie Sig­man, Lulu Wil­son, and Anthony LaPaglia. They are pic­tured at last month’s Comic-Con as the lastest “The Con­jur­ing” in­stall­ment be­gan its roll­out.

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