Happy October, horror fans!
Director: John R. Leonetti
Studios: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Annabelle (coincidence?) Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard
Tagline: Before The Conjuring, there was... Annabelle.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, suspense, drama, haunting, demon, occult, family drama
Scare score: B-/B
Plot overview: In 1960s California, society is changing and so are the lives of young couple Mia (Wallis) and John Gordon (Horton), who are expecting their firstborn child any week now. As a special gift, John presents the anxious Mia with a very rare Annabelle doll to complete her extensive collection. One night, however, their kind neighbors are savagely murdered by two cult followers who then attack Mia and John. Just as Mia begins to lose consciousness from a stab wound to her abdomen, the male intruder is shot by police, and the female intruder takes her own life while cradling the Annabelle doll in her arms. From that day forward, strange and terrifying events begin haunting Mia and her newborn child.
So yes, I ended up going to see Annabelle on opening night in a crowded theater filled with all kinds of personalities, which can simultaneously improve or ruin a horror movie. To be honest, I wasn't expecting this movie to be good - how much can you do with a doll? (Don't get me started on Child's Play). Well I have to say, whether it was the movie itself, the beautiful allusions between this and other classic horror movies, or the wild-and-crazy audience around me, Horror Buff will go against the critics in saying that Annabelle was a hit.
The period piece is done very masterfully (very reminiscent of Mad Men), expounding upon the 1960s/70s world created in The Conjuring, to which this movie serves as a prequel. Director John R. Leonetti (who worked on films such as Child's Play 3, Dead Silence - the poster is very similar to Annabelle's - and more recently with James Wan on Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, and, of course, The Conjuring) takes his turn in the limelight as this new sort of universe within horror continues growing. The allusions to the Insidious movies (that demon looks like a darker brother of Darth Maul, and also the concept of hauntings following a family) and The Conjuring (especially the tune the mobile above the baby's crib plays) were some of my favorite details in this film. They received a huge reaction from the audience.
The other allusions that are most obvious in Annabelle are to Rosemary's Baby, and while the latter is far superior, it was a really nice nod to see from Leonetti to Polanski. From the general plot to the iconic pram, even going so far as Mia's clothes, the similarities between the movies are undeniable. In fact, the relationship between the movies goes deeper than simple on-screen allusions. Our protagonist in this film is named Mia, perhaps in reference to Mia Farrow, star of Rosemary's Baby. Furthermore, Mia is totally stylized in this movie to look like Sharon Tate (who is said to have wanted the eponymous leading role in Rosemary's Baby - well, not the baby... you know what I mean), wife of Roman Polanski and victim to the Manson Family, which is referenced in the beginning of Annabelle and played upon in terms of cults and home invasions. All of these allusions became so strong that when it all hit me I immediately started worrying that the plot of Annabelle was going to take the same turns (I'll explain below); I'm so happy it didn't.
Acting is really pretty standard in this movie: fresh, young(, attractive) faces, all with a very innocent '60s air about it. Even if her role is unoriginal, Annabelle Wallis does a pleasant, strong job (just as we need/ want her to) in the lead as mother, wife, and victim. Speaking of which, I would love to see Wan come back with a movie with a man in the primary role as a victim. Also, I can't stress enough how weird it is that her name is Annabelle and she landing the lead in this movie. Virtual newcomer Ward Horton impresses us in one way or another in his shallow role as perfect husband, loving father, driven careerist and, of course, doctor. I thought he brought a lot of heart to the otherwise static role. Then, in a desperate attempt to diversify the film, we have the lovely Alfre Woodard. Unfortunately, her character Evelyn simply becomes the newest member of the "magical black person" club of archetypes in film and literature. Would that she had been given more depth or screen time, or less knowledge and even power, to avoid this grievous stereotype.
The horror in this film is largely under attack by critics, to which I can understand but not fully agree. I asked the question once and I'll ask it again: how much can you do with a doll? I have a feeling that the creative team here asked themselves the same question, and easily resolved it by deciding that a lot of this film's horror didn't even have to do with Annabelle herself. As we learned in other Wan/ Leonetti films, sometimes, every day objects are merely used as conduits by things far more horrible and dangerous. Annabelle takes this lesson to heart in several ways.
I've always said that one of the most clever things a horror movie can do is inspire terror in mundane, every day objects. It is one thing to be afraid of aliens or invisible monsters, and a completely separate experience to be afraid of the water or chainsaws. So while this movie chooses a doll, which enough people are afraid of anyway (and by the way, I would never ever marry a woman with a doll collection like Mia's), it also diverts our attention to other everyday items and occurrences such as sewing machines (agh!!), basements, or even leaving the stove on. In regards to the doll itself, this movie is dead-on with its suspense. I found a lot of the terror in this movie to be Hitchcockian in nature. Not surprisingly, the suspense in this movie is fantastic, and also not surprisingly, I think that critics are angry about whether or not it ultimately delivers. In many ways, I think it does. There are some wonderful, memorable scares throughout the movie, including things we are and are not expecting.
Well into the movie, we still aren't sure what to expect and whether or not this Annabelle doll is truly going to manifest her malevolence. For Pete's sake, we don't even see the doll actually move until the last 15 minutes of the film. What does the movie do to keep us scared/ interested until then? Sure, Annabelle relies on a lot of "dumb" scares and fake outs to get us through a large amount of the plot, but it does so no more than any other horror movie. In fact, Annabelle boasts a lot more good scaring than many horror movies we see these days. In a typically James Wan fashion, we are given only glimpses as to the true nature of the haunting/ evil in this movie until the climax/ falling action, but these are best described as real hints, not as red herrings such as in many other horror movies. There is lots of talk of the occult, devil worshiping, and satanism through the film, but when the time is right, yes, I think this movie certainly delivers in regards to the demon/ devil (?) that ends up being the culprit behind the haunting and the puppeteer behind Annabelle. One thing I think we can all agree on is that this demon is a huge improvement from Darth Maul in Insidious. Once this crazy new character starts appearing, he doesn't stop, and I loved it. The audience I was with last night kept going wild any time he popped up, all with positive reactions. I thought that this demon was an absolute treat from the creative team here.
With the undeniable allusions to Rosemary's Baby, I started to get more than a little frightened by this film, not so much because of the scares but instead for fear of where the plot was headed. The new apartment building, the troubled pregnancy and worrisome threats directed at the baby - who is the absolute cutest baby in the world - the quirky and spiritual neighbor (Evelyn), the career driven husband... No I thought. No no no. John gave Mia Annabelle in the first place. John was never home to experience the haunting, and easily could be feigning belief in his wife. John went away right before we saw the stove left - not magically turned - on. John put Annabelle in the trash, but did he take her out? For more than a hot sec, I was so worried that we were just seeing Rosemary's Baby all over again, and that John and Evelyn were in on it. The best thing this movie did was not go down that rabbit hole. The suspicions are there, but thankfully that is not the case.
My only real problem, then, is the resolution in this movie. The demon wants a soul, and its sights are set on baby Lia/ Lea/ Leah. Since the baby cannot offer her own soul, the demon will need to trick someone into offering one to him, using a haunting to achieve the insanity or possession of his victim. Just as the exasperated Mia is about to take her own life to end the haunting and bring back her daughter, Evelyn steps forward and quite literally takes the plunge. But wait - what does that solve? While her sacrifice - the whole theme of the movie since the first scene - brings back Lea, it still gives the demon/ Annabelle's ghost the soul they wanted to harvest for their 'conjuring.' Soo they have the baby, but have they also loosed a demon out into the world? And if so, why is Annabelle still haunted (epilogue to this movie and prologue to The Conjuring)? Regardless, the one thing I know is that my first rule holds true: babies will always be all right.
In contrast to what most critics are complaining about (the ending), I have to say that I for one am thankful to finally see a horror movie that doesn't resolve itself, only to have the final second of the film show that the terror is not over. Not that every movie should end on a totally happy note - gosh no - just that because a horror movie chooses to completely resolve itself (which you can't even say it does because we know Annabelle causes more problems down the line) doesn't make it a bad movie. Get over yourselves.
Final critique: While critics may be disregarding Annabelle as nothing special, I think that it was a creative and effective movie in its own right, as well as an important new piece of the Insidious/ Conjuring universe (which I'd like to henceforth title "White People's Demons"). This delightfully suspenseful movie boasts both funny and freaky scares and draws upon many of our very human fears of every day things such as injury, pregnancy and childbirth, and things that go bump in the night. At the end of the day, we have another Wan/ Leonetti film about a mother protecting her children/ family, but while Annabelle nods her creepy head at other, greater horror movies, she delivered much more of a punch than what I was expecting. One thing we should be expecting for sure: plenty of real life Annabelle dolls popping up in people's Halloween decor this year! All in all, this was an enjoyable movie that I would recommend to anybody although those who scare easily are sure to be frightened.