Move your mind back through the mists of time to summer 2013 and you may recall the moment that The Conjuring manifested itself in movie theatres. James Wan’s film fictionalisation of an astoundingly creepy case handled by American paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) was a huge critical and commercial hit. In fact, earning over $300 million off the back of a budget estimated around $20 million, it’s one of the highest-grossing horror flicks of all time.
Naturally, a sequel was ordered and that’s due to surface and scare us all over again just before Halloween 2015. Before that, though, audiences itching for more of this particular world (and threatening other worlds) have something novel to enjoy while they wait for the return of the Warrens. Namely, they have Annabelle – a spin-off prequel to The Conjuring produced by Wan and directed by his long-time cinematographer, John R Leonetti.
Annabelle is, if you remember, the terrifying doll that the demonologists kept in their home treasure trove – a safe store for possessed knick-knacks and souvenirs from their old cases. In very little screentime the vintage dolly in the white dress managed to make enough of an impression to creep out everyone watching and etch herself into collective memory.
The doll, unfortunately, is unforgettable and with the allusions to an eerie backstory that makes even the experienced Warren duo shiver with dread, an Annabelle spin-off is obviously the right thing to do. It’s Halloween in a few weeks and we need something intolerably frightening to get us in the mood. Nothing is scarier and more subversive than a possessed, malevolent plaything. For proof of this claim, see the climax of the original Toy Story which makes most of the freakouts in The Exorcist look like mere child’s play.
Annabelle’s arrival is also beneficial for the movie scene because it brings a new approach to franchise building. Instead of a straight-up sequel or prequel – or a spin-off exploiting the popularity of a living character – this movie is expanding the mythos by focusing on an object. Admittedly, it’s an object that has certain vitality and may be considered as ‘alive’ as human protagonists, but it’s still a prop.
Props have power and significance and that’s sometimes easily overlooked in the mix of all the things that make a movie. Pick a film – pretty much any film – and most likely you’ll soon find an inhuman object that is really important to either the plot, the visual identity or the symbolism of the whole affair. What’s more, with intelligent and inspired use of filmmaking techniques, these objects can take on a life of their own and acquire great potency.
For example, recall how both Seven and Barton Fink turn something as mundane as a box into an article of abject horror. A telephone is nothing more than a lump of moulded plastic fitted with wires but in, say, The Matrix and Scream this commonplace electrical appliance acquires personality, import and tremendous emotional resonance.
Possessed car flicks like John Carpenter’s Christine and any Herbie movie are also worth noting and it’s true that sometimes the gadgets and magical artefacts make for the most memorable moments in certain James Bond or Harry Potter films. I rest my case with Bedknobs And Broomsticks, which is a perfect illustration of how much of a fun and/or horrifying experience you can have with animated objects. Treguna Makoidees Trecorum Sadis Dee, indeed.
Bringing it back to the scary blockbuster currently attacking the box office, Annabelle strikes me as an excellent idea as it brings a prop to the forefront and effectively makes it the star of the show. I like the notion of producing a spin-off for an object and reckon that this could be an innovative way to go about expanding franchises. If you can make a movie based on toys (the Transformers franchise, Battleship) or theme park rides (Pirates Of The Caribbean and Big Dipper Boys, the Blackpool Pleasure Beach musical drama which is currently being developed by Clint Eastwood), you can surely make movie magic out of props that are innately cinematic simply by virtue of having already had a starring role in a real film.
Straight away – faster than I can say “Treguna Makoidees Trecorum Sadis Dee” – several props that are perfect for spin-off treatment spring into my mind, so I’m going to list a few that I reckon should be rushed into production right away. These iconic objects all deserve a film of their own and I’ve detailed the ways that we could artistically approach the articles in question if Hollywood is inspired…
The One Ring – The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies
The Battle of the Five Armies is going to be such a bittersweet experience when it comes around this Christmas. When we’re done with the final film of The Hobbit trilogy we have to face the stark fact that there are no more Peter Jackson Middle Earth movies, and this time it may be even more of a bind than the last time we did that (after the multiple climaxes of The Return Of The King, before anyone realised that The Hobbit was inevitable).
Personally, I can’t cope with the idea that we’re done with this cinematic universe and I’m pretty sure that Jackson can’t either. But we need not despair, my Precious, oh no for Tolkien’s lore is extensive and hasn’t yet been exhausted. There’s still a great tract of the saga yet to be covered on screen and that is the tale of the forging of and subsequent rise of the One Ring – the key to the whole mythos and the thing that moves mild Hobbits across mountains, forests and Dead Marshes to the crack of Mount Doom.
It would obviously be brilliant – another epic fantasy threesome taking in Sauron’s creation of the Ring, the metamorphosis of the Nine into Nazgûl, the Siege of Barad-Dûr, the corruption of Isildur and all the battles, inter-race power-struggles and dark magic deeds in between. And then at the end Sméagol is back to claim the dread whispering jewellery and link us back to happy memories of movie marathons past. Extended editions would be a bonus and will keep us in the Middle Earth movie-verse until we’re all older than Gandalf’s underwear. Speaking of which, that also probably would be a good source for spin-off movies if the entire Silmarillion is deemed unfilmable.
Ark of the Covenant – Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Do we really need Indiana Jones V? Not as much as we need a film centred around the sacred artefact that was the MacGuffin in the first Indy film – the holy property responsible for the greatest ending in cinema history (it’s true, because God says so). To quote Belloq, just moments before his head explodes, “it’s beautiful!” and any excuse to bring the glorious wrath of its unleashed angels back into theatres should be seized.
Once more we will see that sublime supernatural spectacle, feel the experience of absolute divine power and grin as all the Nazis’ faces melt. Of course, they don’t have to be Nazis. Really, anybody will do just as long as the end of the Ark’s solo feature is a gruesome and grotesque orgy of spirits, electric shocks, unearthly music and splashing visages screaming into the other side.
We don’t even really need to bother with a plot or a drawn-out search to recover the hallowed receptacle from its secret resting place (either the Pentagon basement or Area 51 if we accept its cameo in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a real thing. I’m convinced it was just a duplicate to confuse the aliens and the Russians). All we need is an opening sequence in which someone – possibly Sean Connery, because I miss him – takes off the lid so we can enjoy a two-hour long revelation in which our eyeballs and other sensual organs experience immense celestial energy so awesome that we don’t even notice that our bodies are melting. “It’s beautiful!”
The Gold Watch – Pulp Fiction
Pseudo-mystical items are a very important feature in Tarantino’s second movie but, even more so than Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase or a $5 milkshake, I think it’s Butch’s watch that has most scope for its own spin-off. It means a lot to the prizefighter played by Bruce Willis, and we understand why thanks to the flashback sequence where Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) regales the timepiece’s incredible history. Passed down three generations of Coolidge men, the military family’s heirloom dates back to World War I, witnessed World War II and made it through Vietnam War as well. Of course, it survived the latter because Butch’s dad passed it on to Koons when he was dying of dysentery in a POW camp – his final request that the watch be delivered to his son.
Koons kept that uncomfortable hunk of metal up his ass for two years, and that’s the best bit of a crack story – specifically, an ass-crack story – that encompasses three major conflicts that characterised and shaped the 20th century. I see possibility for a mucky, moving historical drama of timeless quality that follows the strange fortunes of, symbolically enough, a sentimental object concerned with keeping time and identity through tumult. It would be like Forrest Gump from the perspective of a pocketwatch that’s occasionally lodged between the buttcheeks of great Americans. This concept is golden, with maybe a few scratches and smears of brown.
Ruby Slippers – The Wizard Of Oz
Silver in L Frank Baum’s original novel, Hollywood turned the special footwear red to symbolically represent menstruation and Dorothy’s maturity to womanhood. That’s what The Wizard Of Oz is really all about, y’know, but regardless, that fantastic footwear could go far with a film series of its own. The size 6½ slippers are after all among the most valuable and prized props in motion picture history. Plus, they have certain wish-fulfilment powers if the wearer’s brain, heart and nerve are all in harmony.
For plot, it really doesn’t matter much just as long as we get fresh musical sequences of those ruby heels tap-tap-tapping down the Yellow Brick Road. Maybe it could be a caustic comedy about the various witch’s deranged obsession with shiny shoes. Alternatively, perhaps there’s room for a ruminatory socio-philosophical drama in which the Scarecrow – new custodian of his beloved Dorothy’s abandoned slippers – starts wearing the shoes and suffers an existential crisis as he begins to debate his materialist desires, his own identity and Oz’s gender-politics. Constructed as a ‘man’ but interested in transvestitism and navigating the shift from arable labourer to erudite academic and upper-class authority figure, there’s a lot of deep stuff to explore here. It’s a good thing we’re wearing heels.
Carpet Bag – Mary Poppins
Like a more portable and stylish TARDIS, this remarkable travel accessory is bigger on the inside and defies the conventional laws of physics. In fact, we have no idea just what’s inside Poppins’ own special bag of holding and we have no sense of its dimensions or character beneath the rug lining. We know that it has the surprising capacity to handle a hatstand, a large leafy plant, a lamp and full-face mirror that’s practically perfect for all self-satisfied narcissists. Dimwit kid Michael’s statement “but there’s nothing in it!” isn’t very helpful and I demand a spin-off movie to delve into the dark depths of the Carpet Bag in order to uncover its esoteric mysteries.
I’m willing to bet that within this enchanted luggage there exists, Inception-style, worlds within worlds within worlds. The movie could follow a chirpy mockney-Cockney’s musical odyssey through the parallel dimensions in pursuit of the pith of that mercurial Poppins woman. Or he could simply just be looking for some loose change to pay his bus fare or to sling the way of the lady who feeds the birds outside St Paul’s Cathedral (or is it St Paul’s Cathedral?). The morale of the story is this – magic carpetbags are great for moving furniture and impressing vacant children but useless when it comes to daily practical business in Ol’ London Town. Nonetheless, the movie would be freshly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and would spark a new trend for vintage hold-alls.
Plastic Bag – American Beauty
Outcast schoolkid and underage marijuana-dealer Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) likes filming dead birds and drifting plastic bags because they’re “beautiful”. The dead bird’s story is done and dusted (no zombie birds, thank you) but I see potential in his fifteen minute shopping bag short. Ricky has a tremendous poet soul and I think we need to appreciate that and his enlightened artistic sensibilities.
Recall the would-be auteur’s words – “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world. I feel I can’t take it and my heart is just going to cave in”. That’s wonderful, and a meditative feature-length motion picture that follows the bag as it dances through the air could be a potent spiritual experience and a complete paradigm-shift for those who’ve lost touch with the pure quintessence of life and the invisible benevolent forces behind it. Sure, video’s a poor excuse but it helps us remember. Thank you Ricky. Thank you, beautiful floating plastic bag.
Failing all those, as an alternative I’ll accept a sequel to Rubber – Quentin Dupieux’s very-meta avant-garde masterpiece about a sociopathic tire with psychokinetic powers. In fact, forget Annabelle, the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Pick of Destiny, the Maltese Falcon remake, the $5 shake, The Stuff sequel, the Sorting Hat and all the other bits of old junk. The top prop spin-off priority should be ‘Rubber 2: Return of Rubber’. Let’s get this film rolling into production ASAP.
James Clayton is finding that he can’t take it anymore and his heart may just cave in because there’s just too much beauty in the world. He’s going to sit in the dark depths of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag with a philosophical plastic bag over his head until he’s regained some composure.
You can read James’s last column here.
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