Thursday, October 9, 2014

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)


Released: 2014

Directed by: John R. Leonetti

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

*Spoilers ahead. Only read if you don't mind having major plot points revealed*


This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I'm a bit of a fan of the horror genre.

I'm a fan of everything from the truly terrifying psychological horror to the Z-grade shlock or the ultra-generic slasher. Whether it's actually scary or a laugh out loud play on the genre I happily head along to every horror movie I can. In saying all of this, I do get disappointed when a horror film doesn't live up to its predecessor or the frights-a-second suggested in the trailer. Which was unfortunately the case with Annabelle, the spin-off/sequel of last year's breakaway hit The Conjuring. 

Annabelle, for those of you who haven't seen the trailers and posters, is a film about a possessed doll. It had a small cameo in The Conjuring to set up the backstory of Ed and Lorraine Warren as paranormal investigators. Like the Warrens, the story of Annabelle is based on events that happened in real life. Well... real in the sense that there is a doll named Annabelle locked behind a glass door at the Warren's home which supposedly has haunted multiple families.

The real life "evil" Annabelle (photo credit)
The "real" story of Annabelle is actually quite creepy. It's the kind of story that I love to read late at night when I'm surfing the web - dolls that seem to be shifting position, leaving threatening notes and strangling people in their sleep. It's also the story that the original segment in The Conjuring told - which leaves this movie with the complicated issue of trying to work out exactly how to tell a story that's already been told.

Their answer to this puzzle was an origin story. Rather than simply build on the mystery of an innocent figure turned nasty, they decided to take all of the magic out of it and give us a very by the book explanation. So by the book in fact, that I'm fairly sure it's the origin given to Chucky. In Annabelle we meet the Gordons, a young married couple who are expecting their first child. The movie takes place at the tail end of the 1960s, at the end of the age of innocence. As the Gordon's come home from a morning in church and watch the news they're blasted with information about cult groups, particularly Charles Manson and that vein of Satanist. Mia Gordon reminds her husband that he needs to start locking the front door because "it's a different world now". That night Mia stirs in her sleep and we see their neighbours bedroom light turn on. The husband/neighbour picks up a gun (or was it a bat?) and goes to investigate, while the wife jumps onto the phone. As Mia turns over in bed we see the husband back into the bedroom before BLAM he's killed, and as the killer moves to the wife the light switches off. This wakes Mia up properly and waking her husband John they go to investigate, Mia left on the front porch while John runs into the neighbours house and comes out soon after covered in blood. The tension picks up as Mia runs back into their house to call the cops and we see shadows moving in the babies room behind her. She hears a noise, investigates, and is stabbed in her womb. Her and her husband and their baby survive, but the two murderers are killed in their house, the woman dying with the doll Annabelle in her arms. Cue creepy doll antics.

So here is where I get into major spoiler territory (The above details all happen within the first 10 minutes of the film and are also in much of the trailer). There is a fascinating premise that could have guided this movie. In fact, there are so many hints of it in the script that I'm almost convinced it was the original narrative but was shot down by the studio. So I thought I'd write about the film that we get and the film that could have been because Tom and I literally spent 45 minutes discussing this and feeling completely let down.

Insidious and The Conjuring (two of James Wan's other films), take a lot of visual and narrative cues from seminal horror films from the 1960/70s. While this isn't technically a Wan film (however, he is signed on as a producer) this is absolutely the case for Annabelle as well. This time it is The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby that seem to have the heaviest influence, although more in terms of visuals than thematic cues - which is where my problems lie. Both The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby deal with shifts in social conscious. The world was changing. It wasn't a given that a woman would stay home with the children, they wanted careers and lives outside of the household. Religion was becoming less of a devout necessity and more something done out of routine. Scientific invention and medical discoveries were completely changing the way people thought and behaved and considered things. Not to mention cults and violence were happening in places that were previously believed to be safe and "out of bounds". In The Exorcist a great deal of the book (although less of the film) is the mother's conflict between psychological or medical explanations and a gut feeling that what was happening to her daughter wasn't right. The priest suffers the same struggle. Is it a demon possessing this 13 year old, or is that just a centuries old explanation for things we don't understand and can't control?

This movie sets up a very similar situation. There is a clear conflict in Annabelle between science and religion, the safety of the old world and the violence of the new. When John and Mia are in church they're playing thumb wars, rather than listening to the priest. John is a med student on the cusp of becoming a doctor and is presented early on as a voice of reason, injected rationalism and science into their conversations. Mia on the other hand is afraid. She worries about the cults she hears of on the news, she frets about their door being left unlocked, she worries that her child is being brought into a world of darkness and fear and violence. When the event with the cultists occurs her fear is dialled up to 11. Which is absolutely understandable as both she and her child were nearly killed. When they return home after a short stay in hospital Mia is relegated to her bed. She tries to sew and watch TV but she's antsy and there are these odd noises in the nursery that keep bothering her. She becomes obsessed with finding out details of the case, asking the detectives to help her understand why the cultists did what they did.

The biggest issue with Annabelle is a lack of conflict. This isn't a situation like Poltergeist where an entire family is against the external force, this is like Rosemary's Baby in that Mia is essentially alone in her fears and attempts to protect her family. Her husband is not an antagonist like in R.B but he also isn't really part of the story. He's in his first year of residency and as such can mostly be found at the hospital. Mia is essentially alone against Annabelle. However, in this sort of story you usually have external conflict. The doctor that prescribes medication instead of exorcism, the husband that thinks the wife or daughter is imagining things. In this film Mia keeps her fears to herself for most of the film, but when she reveals her fears first to her neighbour (who also happens to be a bookshop owner well versed in the paranormal) and then to her husband they don't contest her beliefs. They don't patronise her or agree with her to comfort her fears, they just straight out believe that when she says a demon is after their baby, that a demon is after their baby.

The things is, conflict would have been so easy. We've already set up that the husband is a rationalist and a man of science. We've shown that the wife was already nervous and then experienced a traumatic event that basically proved these fears right. When the wife starts to hear noises and constantly checks the front door is locked the husband could rationalise that she's still afraid from the experience. When a fire  nearly kills her, it could have been the combined trauma from the attack and her baby hormones that made her forget that she left the burners on. We, as an audience, know that she's being haunted. We see the door close by itself and see the burners turn themselves on and her ankle grabbed by something invisible which pulls her towards the fire. But to everyone in the film, it's completely explainable. Even at the end of the film when Mia is hounded by Annabelle and the demon, the final scene would have likely looked to the police like the scene of someone who had finally snapped after months of paranoia and fear.

A quick debriefing of the conclusion. After things escalate further throughout the movie and a priest is brought in (who simply attempts to remove the doll from the house) Mia is once again alone in the house with her child and the doll/demon. The baby vanishes and Mia runs around the apartment in terror, hearing her daughter crying but being unable to find her. In the nursery the walls and ceilings the words "Her soul" and "I want her soul" are scribbled with red crayon and the porcelain dolls that sat on shelves are now strewn across the room with their eyes gouged out. Mia grabs the Annabelle doll and starts to smash it against the crib and then throws it across the room. Suddenly the crying stops and we look to the Annabelle doll and see a baby lying still against a shelf instead. There is a gut-wrenching scene where Mia thinks that she killed her daughter and it was the most upsetting and terrifying moment of the entire film. She soon discovers it was another trick and that the only way to save her daughter is to sacrifice herself, by throwing herself out of the nursery window. She doesn't, her husband saves her and their daughter, but imagine for a second that she had. After a movie where the husband believes his wife is circling the drain mentally, haunted and incapacitated by the events that transpired 6 months earlier, he comes home to ambulances and police cars and the bodies of his dead wife and daughter. It looks like she snapped, maybe she truly believed she was acting against a demon and then killed her daughter in a psychosis. The movie could then end with the husband sitting at the dining table, his world utterly destroyed. And then we hear the creak of the rocking chair, the noise that haunted Mia for all those months, before going to black.

Or maybe there was no demon. Maybe the horror movie turns into a gripping psychological thriller about the damage of post-natal depression and psychosis at a time when we still didn't completely understand psychology and medicine but thought we did. This isn't a revelatory story, I'm definitely not reinventing the wheel. But if you are going to take massive visual hints from films that famously deal with issues of mental health, feminism, motherhood and science vs religion you should follow that through with your narrative. To have these markers throughout your film, to depict intense emotional and physical violence against a new mother with no thematic point - it's lazy and frustrating.

I may be happy watching any horror movie that hits the cinema but that doesn't mean I don't have a preference for meticulously plotted horror. Jump scares for the sake of jump scares may be fun in the cinema but when Mia tripped and fell onto her stomach while still pregnant I blanched. When Mia held the lifeless body of her daughter I held my breath. These moments were visceral and they were real. In this film they feel manipulative because they only have a tenuous link to the thematic motivations of the film, but if they were placed in a film that was actually about motherhood in this era? Damn it could be powerful. So that is why this film failed for me. Because it felt like the were on the precipice of something provoking and potentially great and they chose the easier route. And when you consider that both Insidious and The Conjuring were well-rounded horror it's even more disappointing that this one missed the mark.

The one positive that came out of seeing Annabelle is that I now have an intense desire to write a horror movie that checks all the boxes that this type of film avoids. So keep your eyes peeled, maybe you'll see my name on the big screen one of these days.


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