The Devil’s Dolls (2016)

 

Honestly, watch the trailer and you’ll know what you’re getting. The Devil’s Dolls is your run of the mill “child in peril by strange occult object” story, minus any meaningful character development or tangible villain. The actors give admirable performances but unfortunately can’t save the film from a predictable and bland script. Nothing happens here that you haven’t seen before. The film’s only saving grace would be it’s better than average cinematography and setting – utilizing rust and urban decay in interesting ways – but unfortunately it’s not enough to really save the film. The end result is a film that while technically serviceable, is unfortunately too bland to leave much of an impression. Skip it.

Annabelle (2014)

 

Before I see The Conjuring 2, I thought I ought to look up the other entry in the series. Quite honestly, I didn’t come in expecting much. The Conjuring didn’t impress me and the killer doll storyline has practically been done to death, but I figured why not. Better go in having a complete feel for the world, right?

Final verdict: meh. Annabelle has a few interesting visual tricks up its sleeves – the basement scene in particular was much smarter than anticipated – but largely relied on underdeveloped characters, an overabundance of jump-scares, and made no use of the thematic subtext. For a period film set during the Manson murders, when occult paranoia was at its highest, Annabelle has nothing to say about this. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, it didn’t have anything interesting to say about race or gender either. The entire point of period films in any genre is that they hold a mirror up to modern times and give the audience a new way to look at whatever themes and issues the characters are dealing with. Given that cults aren’t something we think about much in 2016, how would a family contextualize the violent events that happened to them in 1969, and how strange would that seem to the audience? It matters that these events happened to a stay at home mom, it matters that she’s white, and it matters that she’s middle class.

Or at least it should. Annabelle presents these facts, but doesn’t do anything with them. Visually, the film works as a period piece. It looks nice and the sets get the job done, but there aren’t any visual motifs or themes to dig around with. With the exception of the basement sequence, Annabelle is not an interesting film to look at. This isn’t a dig at the crew – it’s perfectly serviceable and its clear that everyone involved did their jobs – but just to point out that creating a world that looks like 1969 really isn’t enough to make a good film. A period film has to be made purposefully, with clear intent, and this one simply wasn’t.

All and all, Annabelle is underwhelming and forgettable. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but it doesn’t do anything exciting. It does have the dubious honor of being inspired by true events, but that’s about as interesting as it gets.

Except for when it comes to the character of Evelyn, played by the wonderful Alfe Woodard. Evelyn is introduced in the second half of the film, a tenet in the building that Mia and her family move into, as well as the owner of a bookshop that happens to have a suspiciously large section on the occult. She’s a quiet, understated character, notable for her kindness and tragic backstory – the death of her young daughter, Ruby. Evelyn survived the accident that killed her daughter and fell into despair several years before the events of the movie, eventually attempting suicide. She survives but is left with a distinctive scar, claiming that she heard her daughter say that it wasn’t her time yet.

Thematically she works as a foil to Mia, both mothers who deeply love their daughters, but find themselves in disturbing situations because of that love – the impact of grief and depression in one case, and demonic possession in the other. It’s possibly Annabelle‘s only moment of thematic reflection, and their friendship gives the story weight that it otherwise lacked. And it could pass without comment except for a single fact.

Evelyn is black. Mia is white.

Now, I don’t think this is a case of the filmmakers trying to be racist or hurtful. I’ve seen that before. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen it recently. And if Annabelle weren’t part of a larger trend, then it really wouldn’t matter that Mia survives the film and Evelyn doesn’t.

Let’s look at that, shall we?

The climax of film is a tense standoff with the demon and the various parties involved, in an attempt to get the demon to give back Mia’s baby. The demon wants a soul – any soul, as it turns out, and not necessarily the baby’s – but that still requires someone to die. Mia attempts to do so, but is pulled back by her husband. Then Evelyn steps forward, declaring that this is what she’s meant to do, and kills herself.

Satisfied, the demon gives the baby back. Mia and her family have their happy ending. Yay!

Now step back and think about that for a second.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a black woman giving up her soul for a white woman. Evelyn literally states that this is why she survived her suicide attempt – so she could eventually sacrifice herself for Mia, a woman she’s known for less than a month. Annabelle treats this as an acceptable – even admirable – move, and the ending is presented in a positive light. The demon has been defeated, Mia and her family are implied to live out the rest of their lives in peace. There is no mention of Evelyn after her death. Sure, a demon ate her soul and she’s probably going to suffer in hell for all eternity, but gosh, that cute baby survived! All’s well that ends well, right?

Well…not really.

The thing is, movies don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we tell and the values those stories extol have a real and powerful impact on the world around us. And what Annabelle and other films like this say is that the lives of black women are somehow worth less than the lives of white women. I honestly don’t think this was done on purpose, but it’s another example of a harmful trend that has been in circulation for a long time.

As filmmakers, we have a duty to think about the stories we tell and the impact they’re going to have on the world. We have a duty to look at how we treat race in all films – horror and otherwise – and really think about what our stories say. These things don’t exist in a vacuum and if a narrative is repeated often enough, then it has a tendency to get absorbed into the popular consciousness.

The lives of black people – especially black women – cannot be devalued like this. Unfortunately, horror does not have a good track record on this count.

This is a notice. We are filmmakers and we have a responsibility to our craft. We can and should do better.

Indigenous (2014)

Every few years, some enterprising horror director decides that they’re going to tackle a story and do what no director has done before – manage to make the Chupacabra legend scary. Director Alastair Orr is the latest in a long line with Indigenous. To be fair, the film makes a solid attempt. The acting is decent, the locations well shot even if the editing gets chaotic towards the end, and the monster effects look good when shot from a distance or in silhouette – less so in the climatic battle, which featured too many close-up shots for its own good. The plot is your standard idiot tourists in peril story, where our group of intrepid and vaguely likable characters set off into the jungles of Panama while on vacation in search of a mythical waterfall – despite the warnings of the locals that the place is dangerous and off limits for a reason.

Up until the last twenty minutes, that is.

See, it turns out that one of our otherwise forgettable heroes is working on a social media app. And the SOS message he’s sent out has gone viral.

Now, this part had the potential to make Indigenous something special. For about twenty minutes, the film takes a good look at the power of the viral video – and the responses that the locals take to the events that have propelled them into accidental fame. The fact that the locals – including the police force – already knew about the monsters but didn’t do anything until a group of wealthy Americans go missing – with the entire world watching the situation – could have been an opportunity to discuss the role of privilege in disasters, as well as the politics behind public sympathy. Which tragedies get media attention and which are ignored? Might race and economics have something to do with that? Hmmm.

Unfortunately, this development comes too late in the film to really add anything to the story the conclusion feels as chaotic and forced as the editing. Indigenous has some interesting ideas, but sadly doesn’t spend the time to come to any conclusions about them. While I’m glad that these questions were posed in the first place, I do wish they’d been explored a bit as well.

In all honesty, Indigenous is a solid B offering. A decent film, but not quite creative enough to merit a second viewing.

 

 

The Hollow (2015)

Following a tragic car accident, three sisters move to a remote island to live with their aunt the night before Halloween – unaware than an ancient evil has come home as well. And it’s hungry.

Well, an attempt was made. That’s about the best I can say about The Hollow. There were moments in the beginning that I hoped would lead to a better story, but the themes of survivors guilt, family obligation, and upheaval were never actually dealt with. The dynamic between the three sisters was by far the most interesting of the movie and there were moments I though that their relationship might elevate The Hollow into something truly interesting. The Hollow doesn’t sugarcoat their relationship or shy away from portraying the various interactions as selfish or hurtful – many of the things the sisters do to each other are exactly that, even when done out of grief or a misguided attempt to help. Sadly, that storyline never actually went anywhere and those interesting story nuggets were swept out of the script before the end of the first act. The monster effects were decent but wore out their welcome – and creativity – long before the end, the story was packed with too many secondary characters who died without much of an impact, and the ending felt too contrived to have any emotional impact.

It’s a B movie. Unfortunately, it’s neither funny nor charming, despite it’s occasional moments of subtle character building. Skip it.

Sinister 2 (2015)

 

Sinister 2 is one of those rare sequels that actually works as a follow-up to the original, adding on additional information and thematic stuff without losing any of the elements that made the original so compelling. To be fair, though, Sinister 2 isn’t the sort of film that could stand on its own; it relies too heavily on the mythology and “rules” defined in the original. Anyone coming in cold will find themselves very confused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just an observation. The story told in the original film was already concluded. Sinister 2, while heavily influenced by those events and characters, is more interested in exploring a different angle. And you know what? That’s just fine. I’m not usually a fan of sequels, since the original movies are rarely written in a way that lends itself to an interesting and well-rounded multi-chaptered story. More often than not, sequels are filmed in order to make money and end up confusing the themes of the original to the point where the story becomes very close to incomprehensible. Consider the Saw and Insidious series as examples.

The story in Sinister 2 is thus: a mother and her two sons are hiding in an abandoned house from their abusive father. Deputy So and So from the first movie, reeling from the violent murders, is attempting to track down and destroy the evil responsible – with a limited amount of success, it must be said, and a whole lot of old-school arson. Unfortunately, the hideaway the family has picked happens to be the site of a horrific series of murders – and guess what’s hiding in the basement with a trunk full of snuff films?

The pacing isn’t as tight here as it was in the original, but for the most part, Sinister 2 works on a technical level. The setting is interesting and dynamic, hinting at darker tensions just below the surface. The camera work is excellent, the sound-design intriguing, and the characters well cast. Unfortunately, Sinister 2 does share the original’s propensity towards jump-scares, which was – and remains – a cheap tactic that wears its welcome well before the end. And while the ending felt forced, Sinister 2 did a great job of rounding outs its characters – all interesting, most likable, some redeemable, and a few too far gone to save. It’s also not afraid to give its protagonists realistic and deep flaws – these people make mistakes. Horrible mistakes, sometimes. But always for very understandable and – unfortunately – human reasons.

However, the same question I had for the original also popped up in the second. It’s established early on that the demon – or whatever Bughuul is – lives inside artistic representations of violence; songs, drawings, radio recordings, and film. Bughuul then gains power by corrupting children through said pieces of art, and can survive inside them for years. The Sinister series clearly understands that representations of violence and traumatic events are compelling, but doesn’t really go into why these pieces of art are so powerful. This seems strange to me, as Sinister is – in essence – a horror film about the impact of horrific videos. The characters seem to argue that the pieces of art – most, but not all of them made on film – were created to document tragedy, and then go on to “infect” later witnesses who stumble across the evidence. Except then we have the audience watching a horror film, about characters watching horrible events captured on video. So….what is Sinister’s opinion on horror, class?

Honestly, at this point I can’t say. It’s not that horrific images will inevitably corrupt the people who see them, because this is – again – a horror film. Horror films are scary, they’re full of shocking imagery and nightmares projected up on screen. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is what horror movies do. Except, I’m still not sure what Sinister, either the original or the sequel, means to do. It’s not even that Bughuul’s motives are hard to understand – he’s hungry, and that’s what monsters do – but rather that Sinister doesn’t seem to understand how it’s philosophy fits into the larger world.

Because here’s the thing: artistic representations of horrible events, of trauma and pain and nightmares, are everywhere. They’re timeless. Powerful. And in a lot of ways, I would argue that they’re necessary. What do human beings use this art for?

To remember. And, in many cases, to work through our own history.

See, people write about horrible things not because they want to celebrate awful things that happened, but because it’s human nature to try and come to term through things by way of art and storytelling. You could argue that these were the first coping mechanisms. Sometimes people create scary stories and creepy paintings because it genuinely helps them deal with their past, and from the confusing thoughts that result from it. Former soldiers have made masks to help them come to terms with their PTSD and war experiences.

Some of these pieces are quite beautiful. Some of them are horrific. And all of them are incredibly, painfully, honest.

Sometimes, art can be horrific and hard to look at. That doesn’t mean it’s without impact or importance.

And that’s the part that Sinister as a series seems to struggle with. It acknowledges that these images have a power – supernatural and otherwise – but seems unable or unwilling to consider that sometimes, horrific imagery does have a practical purpose. People create this art for a reason. And people watch horror movies for a reason.

I walked into Sinister 2 without expecting very much. I came out with a lot to consider. Watch the original, then follow it up with the sequel. They’re well worth looking at.