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 big-budget 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 Manson-era 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 flocked to the multiplex, and "Annabelle" ended up with a $256 million global take. After steering Universal's high-profile "Furious 7," the seventh 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.
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 no-budget 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 15-year-old Bateman — her brother, the actor 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.
"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."