Summary: Annabelle doesn’t scare. The end result is Anna-bleh!
Director: John R. Leonetti
Annabelle Wallis – Mia
Alfre Woodard – Evelyn
Ward Horton – John
Tony Amendola – Father Perez
Suppose you’re reading a crime novel, a murder mystery set on a secluded island. There are four prime suspects and one includes a rambling alcoholic with bloodshot eyes and a ghastly appearance. This man claims to have committed a thousand odd crimes in his past and the story also explicitly suggests his animosity towards the victim. Now would it in any manner stun you if this very man is found to be the murderer after a few hundred pages or so? Most probably not, unless you are so non-judgmental you’ll not find any reason to doubt even an ‘alcoholic with bloodshot eyes, a ghastly appearance and hostility towards the victim’.
Now tell me this, what is so startling about a creepy doll that’s possessed by the ghost of a ‘deranged Satan-worshipping cult member’? Now, a demonic doll possessed by an evil spirit may be blood-curling spooky if it were in real life but on film, that too one releasing in late 2014 where films have successfully shocked by making the source of fear unknown, the idea comes off as unoriginal. Another problem is that the entity is all skin and bone in terms of characterization. In James Wan’s Conjuring, which introduced the Annabelle doll fleetingly, kept shut in ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren’s museum, the spirit at least had a story to tell. While I wasn’t a fan of the film itself, I can say that at least their ghost didn’t seem like a throw-in. This one, thanks to lazy writing, feels more like a shadow of a ghost and such a figure can never be terrifying. If you’ve read Strange Robert Louis Stevenson’s Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you’ll know exactly what I’m trying to say; what made Mr. Hyde so fearfully enigmatic a character was the vivid description provided about him through secondhand encounters. Omit the details, and just put ‘Mr. Hyde was a loathsome boor feared by every townsman’, there’s hardly an impact created.
Now, while may sound ludicrous, but even ghosts have a modus operandi and horror is effective only when the boundaries within which a supernatural entity works to spook the human characters is well-defined. For instance, in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger had infinite scope to haunt his victims but his playground was restricted to his character’s dreams. So audiences would dread the moment a character heard Freddie’s menacing voice or sensed something distorted about his environment, which implied that she or he had fallen asleep. Blair Witch Project, a modern horror classic filmed entirely using handicams, had an invisible cause of fear but one that haunted at only at nighttime.
Annabelle meanwhile takes generous liberties with the spirit of Annabelle Higgins, the runaway daughter of the Higgins family who returns only to kill her parents, is shot dead by the police along with her boyfriend after the two Satan-worshipping outcasts attack the film’s protagonists, a pregnant Mia and her husband John Form, both neighbors of the Higgins, and possesses one of Mia’s (most repulsive-looking) dolls, newly gifted to her by John. Annabelle toys with the kitchen stove and starts a fire. After Mia and John change homes post their daughter Lia’s birth, she re-appears despite John disposing her of at Mia’s insistence. It haunts Mia day and night, which John, a doctor, at first attributes to post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are two effective ‘horror’ scenes in the film. One includes Mia’s encounter with Annabelle’s spirit in her new home, where Annabelle firstly assumes the form of her young self as Mia looks on stupefied from another room and suddenly transforms to her freakish adult form as she dashes into the room Mia is in. The other one is more elaborate, and involves Mia, a dimly-lit storage unit in a basement and an elevator that refuses to leave it.
The preposterous, rule-bending moment comes later, when a priest, who role until then involved doling out platitudes intermittently, is brought in to deal with the situation. The priest, Father Perez, takes the doll in his possession so he can ‘work on it’ (a priest has been a staple of every horror film involving demonic possession, none bettering Father Damian Karras, the priest in Exorcist who actually had depth in terms of character) but meets with a supernaturally-caused accident. Now here comes the incredulous ‘fear-for-fear’s-sake’ (for convenience, I’ll call it FFFS) moment that may frighten at first glance but upon first thought seems incredibly force, more like a foolish desperate ‘whatever it takes’ attempt on director John R. Leonetti and writer Gaby Dauberman’s part to incite fear.
Father Perez survives the accident and informs Mia’s husband John about the spirit’s maleficence while he’s hospitalized. He phones Mia, who’s at home with Evelyn, a middle-aged bookseller who intuits her trauma and voluntarily comes to her help. Before he can warn her, there’s a knock at the door. Mia looks through the peephole and finds Father Perez with his back turned towards her. She opens the door and calls him out. But we know that Father Perez is in the hospital with John. So who’s this fellow? It obviously is the spirit disguised as Father Perez out of the blue to momentarily spook us before vanishing to spook us as Annabelle or the Demon, the way it is intended to spook. It’s fairly obvious that this never-seen-before ability of the spirit is nothing but the redundant, desperate rule-breaking FFFS moment I was speaking of.
Annabelle could’ve worked out well, especially as it included a decent enough set-up – the event happens in 1967, there’s news of the Manson family’s arrest, both John and Mia profess love and support for one another, and their conversation doesn’t seemed canned, like most horror film conversations do. The film could’ve done so much by exploring the extent to which the spirit of Annabelle tests the couple’s loyalty and support towards each other. But John is hardly utilized in the film, and the character of Mia could’ve had more potential; she’s fighting to save her baby so surely she could’ve reacted more passionately. Annabelle Wallis, who plays Mia, doesn’t bring the vigor that a person like Mia needs while facing such drastic situations. She does timidity and helplessness well, but when it comes to fighting back, her face needed to display that resistance and will-power. Ward Horton, playing her husband John, is passable but as I said above, his character is grossly underutilized.
And then there’s poor Evelyn, played by Alfre Woodard, who displays such an incredible level of selflessness towards the end of the film. Her character’s treatment in the film’s climactic moment (which I shan’t reveal for fear of being unbraided for spilling spoilers) is totally WTF-level absurd. The problem over here again is the underwritten narrative. Dramatic climaxes work only if we’re well acquainted with our characters, and this can happen only if they are well-defined and for this, the filmmaker and writer need to give them more time, especially if they wish to do pack everything – good storyline, deep characterization, big themes, jump scares as well as real horror – in a single film.
Annabelle, trying to do everything within its compact time frame of 90 minutes, fails. The end result is Anna-bleh.