Extra, Extra: ANNABELLE: CREATION

The smash sequel comes to Blu-ray with loads of bonus features.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.

As sales of physical discs (Blu-ray and DVD) decline, the idea of bonus features becomes less and less essential for new, mainstream films. There will always be a market for library titles with extensive retrospective commentaries and documentaries (see: Criterion, Scream Factory, etc), but for new films it's a dying trend. "Extra, Extra" is an attempt to encourage the studios not to give up on us disc champions, by mostly skipping over the film itself (which you can find reviews for anywhere) and focusing on the bonus features they were kind enough to include. Viva la physical media!

As one of the few people around these parts that enjoyed the first Annabelle, I was still hesitant about the sequel, mainly because it was said to be a prequel, Well, the first film was itself a prequel, so this would be a prequel to a prequel - how much backstory can we possibly need for this killer doll? More importantly, I wasn't too optimistic that they could possibly get any more mileage out of Annabelle after two other movies (the first film as well as The Conjuring; she's just a quick sight gag in Conjuring 2), since unlike Chucky she doesn't move or talk. Even with David "Lights Out" Sandberg at the helm, could there really be any juice left in this concept? As it turns out, audiences seemed to think there was, as Annabelle: Creation managed to outgross its predecessor despite being released in the summer (the original got an October bump), while also earning better reviews - a whopping 70% on Rotten Tomatoes vs. the original's 28%. 

Ironically, I thought it was a step back from the first go-around. While Sandberg is a better director than that film's John Leonetti, the film had too many telegraphed scares for my tastes, and the isolated setting felt too much like the Conjuring's house, whereas the first film had a fairly underutilized locale for horror films (1960's Santa Monica) that helped keep comparisons to James Wan's masterpiece (still the best in this franchise by a wide margin) to a minimum. It also felt a bit too long (110 minutes) and the backstory-to-the-backstory wasn't as compelling as I was hoping, so while I enjoyed it and found a number of the scares to be well-done (the scarecrow sequence is probably better than anything involving the doll, actually), it ultimately felt like too much of a retread to really wow me. I love that it was a big R-rated hit (R-rated horror films rarely gross over $100m; this was one of three to do it this year) and loved seeing esteemed actors like Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto in a "killer doll" movie, but I think if they make a third film focused on the doll I will keep my expectations much lower.

That said, I was still excited for the Blu-ray, as it promised a wealth of bonus features and you all know how much I love those. So let's take a look at what Warner Bros has offered people who still embrace physical media over shameful, terrible streaming options! (If you like streaming, don't worry - it comes with a digital copy as well.)

The first option in the special features menu is "Deleted Scenes Featurette", and no that's not a mistake. Rather than present the usual collection of scenes as individual clips with perhaps a little buffer to show where they would fit in the movie, we just get the entire collection played straight through - and with Sandberg's commentary over them, with no option to shut him off and hear the source audio. While he narrates what they're about and you can occasionally hear the characters under him, it's still strange that they don't allow you to see them as is, especially the one that focuses on Sister Charlotte's backstory, as she was a wonderful heroine and Stephanie Sigman's performance was terrific, so it's a shame that they had to cut her character development at all, let alone not even offer the proper consolation prize of hearing it intact in the bonus features. It's always good to hear why things were cut (most just for timing; again, the movie was too long as is), but I am baffled that WB didn't offer the usual "with/without commentary" option on the scenes.

Next up is a lengthy and fairly interesting piece "Directing Annabelle: Creation", which kicks off with Sandberg saying that he'd often buy DVDs for movies he didn't even like that much just to access the bonus features (natch). He also points out that while there are infinite numbers of screenwriting and film software how-to videos and online manuals, there isn't much about what a director actually does. So he cobbled together some of the lengthier segments of the behind the scenes footage and peppered it with explanations of what is actually happening; in some he's going over how he works with the DP and camera operator to pull off the shot he has in his head, and in some he's just working with the younger actors to get a little more life into scenes where their presence was required (such as a dinner scene) but the script wasn't necessarily giving all of them anything to do. He also admits a few things I was surprised to hear, such as that he doesn't really know lenses all that well (he's never going to work with Bruce Willis, I guess) and that he hates shooting coverage - it's rather refreshing to hear such honesty from a filmmaker at all, let alone one on the Blu-ray for his major studio film. It ends with him pimping the film's theatrical release date, so perhaps this was released on the website or on Youtube or something and not originally intended for the Blu, but either way it's a unique approach to the usual behind-the-scenes featurette, and one I encourage other filmmakers to copy since everyone has different filmmaking styles and we rarely get to see anything this detailed (which, of course, is what you want if you're the sort of person watching bonus features in the first place).

Then there's a fluffy piece on the Conjuring universe called "The Conjuring Universe" (they didn't spend a lot of time coming up with these titles), featuring Wan, producer Peter Safran, Gary Dauberman (who wrote both of the Annabelles, plus It, so I assume WB will be greenlighting everything he writes until the end of time), Sandberg, and a brief appearance by Corin Hardy, who is directing the next spinoff based on the nun from Conjuring 2. It doesn't tell us much we don't already know - that the Warrens had this room full of cursed objects and they realized that many of them could be their own story in order to keep the Conjuring brand alive. Wan also hints that the spinoff films will eventually tie back to the main Conjuring series, so maybe there's some kind of Avengers-style teamup film where the Warrens will do battle with all of the spinoff villains? I'd watch that, probably. It's less than five minutes long, so don't expect too much in-depth material about the existing four films (we see a few brief shots of The Nun's production as well); it's mostly just there to remind us that this series is far from over.

After that we can watch a pair of unrelated shorts by Sandberg titled Attic Panic and Coffer, which are well-done but also remarkably similar, as both are wordless and feature the same actress (Lotta Losten) as a woman who sees a creepy thing (an apparent classic ghost with a sheet over it and a rattling chest, respectively), gets spooked a few times, and is ultimately killed by it. They're both very short (three minutes) so it's not like they're asking for a lot of your time, but I'd watch one early and one later to split them up a bit, as you might have trouble telling them apart if you watch them back to back. That said, both show off his ability for building up tension with very few elements, a skill that has served him well with his two features and will presumably do so again with Lights Out 2, if that's still happening.

Finally, Sandberg also offers a full-length commentary, which I was disappointed to find was a solo track. Not that I was sick of him or anything, but the bonus features are surprisingly low on contributions from anyone else that worked on the film; we literally never hear from the cast beyond some off-hand comments in the behind the scenes footage (meaning: no direct interviews), and I was hoping to hear more from Dauberman who was in the unique position of writing a prequel to a prequel. Thankfully, Sandberg doesn't repeat too much from his other featurettes, and rarely stops talking but doesn't spend any time narrating like some filmmakers do. He reveals plenty of trivia as he talks - the two shots of the house in the opening scenes are CGI because they didn't want to paint it for just those when it needed to be run-down for the bulk of the film, and the company that made the electric chair was hesitant about it being used in the film as they feared sales would drop! I also love that he refutes LaPaglia's claim that this was his first horror movie, citing Innocent Blood and A Good Marriage (the latter more thriller to be fair, but come on - Innocent Blood is a vampire movie!), though again I wish I could just hear from LaPaglia himself. 

So if you loved the movie and/or are interested in filmmaking, it's an easy recommend - fans of the movie get a little more bang for their buck, and budding filmmakers get a fairly in-depth (for a Blu-ray) crash course on directing from a guy who - like probably a lot of such hopefuls - cut his teeth making short films more or less by himself and has now directed two huge hits for a major studio, which should be inspirational. But it's a shame that the features are so Sandberg-centric, making the special edition feel a bit less special as we don't get to hear much from anyone else. Then again, considering how quickly they rushed the disc to shelves in order to get it out for Halloween (a mere eleven weeks after it premiered in theaters; in fact it's still playing) I guess it's a surprise they had time to put any bonus features on it at all. I'm sure down the road there will be a Conjuring Universe boxed set with all of these movies and new bells and whistles, and maybe then we can hear more from Sandberg's collaborators about this film (which came within spitting distance of outgrossing Conjuring 2, believe it or not - if not for the It juggernaut, it probably would have), but for now it's a respectable release for a film that everyone seemed to love more than I did.

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