Annabelle (2014)

*. I don’t think much of Annabelle, but it is representative of the current generation of franchise filmmaking. It’s a spin-off from The Conjuring movies, so together they form what, in today’s parlance, is known as a single mythic “universe.” Sequels, prequels, and spin-offs all inhabit a more-or-less coherent imaginative space. The biggest of these, thus far, is the (capitalized) Marvel Cinematic Universe, but these Conjuring and Annabelle movies made a lot of money too.
*. Indeed, the box office success of The Conjuring and Annabelle was so great it may have even surprised the producers. For whatever reason, these old-fashioned ghost stories became immensely popular during this period, with a bunch of similar franchises like the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister films. As I remarked in some of my notes on those movies, their return on investment was staggering, something that was also the case with Annabelle (reported to have had a budget of $6.5 million and box office of over $250 million). With that much money coming in, you could be sure more was on the way. And it was.
*. I guess audiences just wanted the basics. Threatened families. Doors that creak shut and rocking chairs that rock on their own (Annabelle the doll also has a thing for sewing late at night and making popcorn). A handful of jump scares.
*. Annabelle is no different from any of these others. There are no surprises. A very white-bread couple, John and Mia (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton), are expecting a baby. Mia collects dolls so John buys her a creepy looking one that is later possessed in extremis by the spirit of a girl named Annabelle who is a member of a murderous Manson-style cult that worships the devil. This all sounds a lot like Child’s Play. The rest of the film deals with Annabelle’s efforts to capture a fresh soul for her demon lord.
*. Despite being formulaic it’s really very difficult to screw this material up. You can make a mess of it, but it’s hard. And so along with all the quotations from a tradition of other horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby), the style is one that has become increasingly familiar. Slow pans that reveal something sinister going on quietly in the background, interrupted by sudden flashes of scariness. The atmosphere is rich in suspense, anticipating scares that usually don’t appear but which are always threatening to jump out from behind every doorway. There’s some business with Mia stuck in an elevator that makes use of this well, and several other scenes involving doorways that are also very good.
*. Of course, the most obvious bit of anticipatory suspense comes with the long shots of Annabelle’s face as you’re waiting to see her eyes blink or for her to turn her head. Which actually never happens but which you’re sure is about to.
*. Apparently the doll cost John a lot of money, but when Mia first tells him to get rid of it he just throws it in the trash bin. I realize this was before online auction sites, but surely he could have taken out an ad in the local newspaper or tried selling it back to whoever he bought it from or to another antique store. That seemed weird.
*. Poor, poor Alfre Woodard. Not only does she get suck in the stereotypical role of the African-American who knows something about all this supernatural voodoo stuff (hey, she even runs an occult bookstore), but then she has to nobly sacrifice herself to save the affluent young white couple’s baby. This has become such a clichĂ© that it even has its own Wikipedia entry under “Magical Negro.” In 2014 that’s awful.
*. Well, I began by saying I didn’t think much of this one. John and Mia aren’t a very interesting pair and I didn’t care very much what was happening to them. If nothing else, the absence of the Warrens (ghostbusting heroes of The Conjuring films) made me appreciate how much they meant to those movies. Annabelle misses them. A lot.

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