Annabelle’s back, and this time, she’s not toying around.
The Conjuring universe is one of the most exciting horror franchises in popular cinema today, thanks in large part to creator and genre mastermind James Wan. The first Annabelle invoked nearly $257 million at the box office back in 2014, and now, two Conjuring films and one Nun spin-off announcement later, the little doll everyone loves to fear is back for more frights, and Lights Out director David F. Sandberg is at the helm.
In July of 2016, I was fortunate enough to visit the set of the latest Wan produced feature, Annabelle 2 a.k.a. Annabelle: Creation. Representing Bloody Disgusting, I was lucky enough to speak with the cast and crew, walk through the impressively detailed studio based gothic farmhouse, and even spend some time sitting next to Annabelle herself (which was creepy, to say the least). I learned a lot about what to expect from the upcoming film, and I’m happy to say that it looks like it’s going to be a very promising addition to an already thrilling franchise.
“To me, it’s a lot less pressure because it’s not my first [film]” says director Sandberg about working on his big summer blockbuster. “Like with Lights Out I was like, ‘Oh, this is my shot at Hollywood, this is it’ whereas now I’m like, ‘I’ve been on a film set, I know how it works’, and it feels like a lot less pressure”.
Sandberg made a name for himself when his three-minute short film simply titled “Lights Out” caught the eye of horror maestro James Wan, who came on board to produce the feature length version shortly thereafter. Playing on an innate fear-of-the-dark premise, Lights Out stars Teresa Palmer and tells the story of a demon named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) who can only be seen when the lights are turned out. Starting with a simple scenario and evolving into a full-on commentary on mental health, Lights Out combines effective scares with intelligent discussion and effectively wooed audiences all over the globe. It’s no wonder that Wan and crew were eager to work with the upcoming visionary yet again.
“We were just finishing up post on Lights Out and the tests did really well, and the studio was really happy with it so the studio came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do Annabelle?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, let’s go!’” exclaims Sandberg excitedly. “It was just like of course, I loved the script, and it was a period movie, in an orphanage, and we were gonna be shooting in a studio, so it was perfect”.
The first Conjuring film is inspired by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, and details one of their many cases, focusing on a family in Rhode Island who experience a haunting in their home during the 1970s. Although the film centers around this lakeside farmhouse, the opening scenes begin with the side story of an evil doll named Annabelle who terrorizes two nurses to the point where they’re forced to reach out for help. After telling their terrifying tale, the Warrens take the doll home and lock it up in a secure spot in their basement, next to all of their other horrid little artifacts that they’ve collected and locked away over the years.
In the first Annabelle film, we get a closer look at the wicked inanimate object brought to life by sinister forces. Directed by John R. Leonetti and produced by Wan, Annabelle begins with a young couple being brutally attacked by a satanic cult, and follows their story as the doll they attempted to abandon somehow makes its way back into their lives…before trying to end them, once and for all.
Now, in Annabelle: Creation, we’re digging in even deeper to Annabelle’s origins and discovering what made her so evil in the first place. The fact is that even though this film is technically the second Annabelle movie, it is actually a prequel to the 2014 entry, meaning that the timeline in this universe is told in this order: 1) Annabelle: Creation, 2) Annabelle, 3) The Conjuring, and 4) The Conjuring 2.
“The idea always was, right from the get go, to create a universe, but you don’t go out and tout that as being the goal” explains producer Peter Safran. “You start off by just making one good movie. But the idea was certainly that using the Warrens life rights and access to their cases, that would be a really good starting point. It was actually James Wan who suggested putting Annabelle into the opening of the original Conjuring. It was not in the script when he came on board as director. That was not in there, so that was totally him and it was planted for the obvious reasons. After the first [Conjuring] came out we had so much fan interest in Annabelle, both because she was already a well-known entity, but also I think people liked what we did with her in the first movie. A lot of people were really interested in her background, her origins, where she was and where she’s going – so it was pretty natural. New Line has been very supportive of doing a modestly priced spin-off that if we made a really good movie would go out on 3,000 screens, and if we didn’t, it would probably never see the light of day. Fortunately, we made a movie that tested extremely well, and that was the beginning of it all, so when it came time to do Conjuring 2, obviously, in the same manner, we wanted to plant spinoff opportunities, because you never really know what’s going to capture the audience’s imagination. But we knew there were some options in there. The Nun really was the one that everyone gravitated towards and so that was it.”
In Annabelle: Creation, a doll maker and his wife, named Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto) lose their only little girl in a horrific freak car accident. Many years later, stuck in a big empty farmhouse with no little feet running around to fill it, the couple agrees to open their doors and let a dying orphanage use their home as their new resting spot. A nun named Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and her six orphan girls travel out to the desolate space, gratefully claim their new rooms, and do their best to settle in. Janice (Talitha Bateman), a sweet blonde-haired beauty with a physical disability and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) quickly become our two main stars, as they are perceived as the weakest of the bunch, and are therefore become easy prey for the evil that dwells within these walls.
“Linda is 10 years old, like me, and she has just come to a new orphanage, and she’s not really sure about it, because she sees the doll and it really freaks her out, but her best friend, Janice, is kind of trying to help her get used to it,” explains Lulu Wilson about her character Linda. “My bedroom is very scary. It’s like all of these doll mannequins everywhere, and like clothes everywhere and it’s pretty freaky, and like bunk beds with like ripped up sheets. It’s pretty scary. I don’t know why my character would pick that room.”
Of course, the scariest thing in the house isn’t the bedroom. It’s what hiding in the bedroom that Mr. Mullins forbids the girls from going into. A grim grinning ghoul with painted on features and a devious look in her faded pale eyes, just looking at Annabelle is enough to send a chill down your spine. However, as frightening as the Annabelle doll appears at first glance, according to director Sandberg, one of the most challenging aspects of having a doll as the villain is the fact that she’s not allowed to move to elicit frights.
“The hard thing is that the doll is not supposed to move, so it’s hard working with that because you have this stationary object that’s supposed to be scary, so you have to move her when no one’s looking, like you look away, and you look back and she’s moved,” says Sandberg methodically. “You can’t have her run around, you have like an evil glance suddenly, and then you sort of play with the forces around her, like Mrs. Mullins and some other stuff. She’s sort of just the vessel, the portal for evil.”
In order to scare his audience, Sandberg is forced to rely less on moving Annabelle, and more on playing up the demonic forces that surround her, such as the ‘Evil Mrs. Mullins’, an entity who lurks around the house and occasionally scares the living daylight out of the girls; played by brilliant stunt actor Alicia Vela-Bailey. Although she’s new to The Conjuring universe, Vela-Bailey worked with director Sandberg before when she played the creature of darkness Diana in his first film Lights Out and has appeared in a multitude of other projects, including Avatar, Divergent, and the upcoming Wonder Woman.
“It’s funny, before this I was the female freak in The Purge, so like I’m doing all these horror mask movies,” says Vela-Bailey with a gleam in her eye. “This is awesome, but it was just like, I don’t know, it’s just so much fun to be this character that I’m not, you know, and actually my first one I did Hostel 3, and I got to do this scene where I kill this guy with crossbow arrows. It’s so evil, he’s like tied up and I had so much fun doing it, and when I tell people about how much fun I’m having, like pretending to kill someone, they’re like, uh, you’re creeping me out. It sounds horrible, but I’m like, it’s just fake. I don’t really think this, but it just like, being something you’re not and it’s so much fun, playing make-believe. You play it as a kid, and now, I get paid to do it.”
When it came to portraying the Evil Mrs. Mullins, Vela-Bailey recalled that she and director Sandberg slightly harked back to what they had done with Diana on Lights Out, but focused more heavily on making her character appear elderly and atrophied.
“For this, I mean, the long fingers, you know, kind of reminded us of Diana [in Lights Out] in a way, but because she’s portraying, you know, an evil Mrs. Mullins, she’s, the main thing for him was more like, don’t be so upright all the time. It’s more like an old-ladyish, you know, so like hunched over and you know, and because a lot of this, the scenes I’ve done, have been in low light silhouette or whatnot, you have to play with movement and you know, if you’re just a shadow, you don’t want to be so closed up. You kind of have to open up and defray and use the light and you know, finger movement, so it’s just making it as eerie as possible and it’s not too hard when you look like that, to be eerie. It’s fun.”
As for the farmhouse itself, as I stepped through the front door and into the gothic entryway, it was hard to believe I was still on a set at the Warner Bros lot. Stepping into that house felt like stepping into another world. Although it had been built just a few weeks prior, production designer Jennifer Spence managed to create an air of aging so authentic that it felt as though that decrepit old two story had been withering away for over a dozen years. Misty books scattered the shelves, carved in crucifixes allowed in small slits of sunlight into darkened rooms, and red tainted glass lined the stairwell and the sliding dividing doors. Incomplete pieces of mannequins overflowed and filled up what was to be Linda and Janice’s room, making it both clear that a doll maker had once resided there, and also, that now an evil spirit had taken over what was once a happy space. A secret passageway made a good hiding place under the stairs, and a rickety stair lift sat neatly on top – a seat that no doubt had once been meant for Mrs. Mullins, but now probably served an updated purpose as a way for Janice to reach her room. A little closet papered over with ripped out bible verses made for a Carrie White-esque room, which Sandberg later revealed was meant to house Annabelle’s evil, and the room in which the closet resided came complete with a doll house, a setting for a tea party, and a Punch and Judy play house. Spence told us as we wandered about that she would probably be brought to tears when it came time to tear the place down, and after seeing it in person with my own eyes, I completely understand why. The story excited me, the actors interested me, but the house is what sold me – in simple terms, it was beautiful, and with legendary cinematographer Maxime Alexandre behind the camera, it’s sure to be a gorgeous looking film, no matter how strong the subject material turns out to be. I can’t wait to see this movie, and for fans of The Conjuring universe, I’d say that they have a lot to look forward to.