A Horror Film with Characters You Might Actually Like
Summary: Annabelle, directed by John R. Leonetti and based on a script written by Gary Dauberman, is also a spin-off of sorts from 2013's The Conjuring. That film opens with two nurses who have turned to the main protagonists, the Warrens, for help with what they think is a possessed doll. The psychic couple reveal that Annabelle isn’t possessed by a human spirit but is being used by a demon as a ploy to take over one of the nurses’ souls. This prequel film shows us what caused the Annabelle doll to first go bad and which family she and her accompanying demon were tormenting before they fell into first the nursing students’ hands and, eventually, Ed and Lorraine Warren’s.
To be fair, you don’t have to know anything about The Conjuring or have seen it in order to follow this film. The basic plot is that John and Mia Gordon are a young couple expecting their first child. Their marriage is already strained a bit by John’s medical school studies and his pending residency, but things really start to fall apart when their next door neighbors’ daughter who has joined a cult comes back home one night and fatally attacks her parents before attempting to do the same thing with the Gordons. While the cops are able to stop the deranged daughter and her lover from murdering the expectant parents, they do not kill her before she’s able to conclude a ritual that draws a demon to the doll Annabelle.
The spell is powerful enough to follow the Gordons from Los Angeles to Pasadena and the rest of the film chronicles Mia’s struggle to stop the demon from preying on and taking her new daughter, Leah’s, soul. I won’t spoil whether she, her husband, a family friend, and their parish priest stop the forces of darkness, but I will say it’s not Chucky levels of hokey. Annabelle is presented far more as a conduit for the demon, which we do see, than as a talking or walking entity of her own and that’s far more effective after years of Puppet Master and other horror films trying to convince us that dolls are scary. (They aren’t.)
- The opening sequence that sets up how the Annabelle doll becomes so corrupted/open to demonic influence. Those moments are truly scary and the use of silence and camera angles for the death of the Gordons’ neighbors is the most haunting part of this film.
- In this age of both movies with a Saw or Hostel influence where we’re supposed to see how extreme torture can become and in the tradition of Paranormal Activity where things are based around the found footage gimmick, it is surprisingly rare to find a film where the characters are likable and you want them to live. I really was pleasantly surprised to like both Mia and John Gordon. At first, I thought I’d only like Mia and that they’d play up the stereotype of busy working husband who never believes his wife and finds her hysterical. They avoid that trope and paint John as equally sympathetic and someone who turns to his faith and to any resources he can muster in order to protect his baby daughter and his wife.
- Second, I think that they use faith well to tie in with their themes. The Gordons are practicing Catholics who turn to their priest for possible exorcism help with their demons. Without getting into much detail about if they get it or not, I will say that the theme of motherhood as well-respected and the idea that mothers do something unique and special in creating life is celebrated here. I understand why they come at it from this perspective, especially since the four main characters are all devout Catholics, which is a religious sect that takes the Virgin Mary very seriously as an iconic religious figure. There’s a consistency to that aspect of their narrative and I appreciate it.
- Annabelle is genuinely creepy in parts, especially once the demon drops its pretenses and starts to manifest itself in shadows and almost out of the corner of people’s eyes. Again, kudos to the director and script writer for avoiding the cheesy talking demon doll cliches and engaging in a more deft set of scares.
- Similarly, it knows its limits. This isn’t a film that scares through grotesque displays or by threatening an infant in gory or disturbing ways. It’s trying to create an atmosphere throughout and while you do believe the baby, Leah, is in danger, you never worry there will be gruesome scenes of direct injury to the infant.
- It passes Bechdel. I’ve noticed that one of the things I liked about The Conjuring was that it was also a film that celebrated mothers as an important part of the household who worked to glue their family’s together. The talk between Lorraine Warren and the soon-to-be-possessed mother in that film held resonance as does the budding friendship between Alfre Woodward’s Evelyn and Mia over their roles and, sometimes, regrets as mothers
- While the atmosphere is creepy and builds well, it’s not a truly terrifying film. I think it’s the best of a limited October season crop, but it’s not terrifying.
- While the film creates sympathetic, multi-faceted female characters we can like, which can be few and far between sometimes in this genre, I sometimes feel these characters are still mostly limited by their roles as mothers. Yes, it is the 1960s so it’s a different time, but I wish they weren’t weighed and judged both on their maternal responsibilities and what they should or shouldn’t sacrifice for their children.
- Evelyn feels like she almost veers into the Magical Negro trope. She doesn’t quite fit that role since Mia only gets some information from books in Evelyn’s shop about the looming demon threat (the rest, to be fair, does come from Father Perez). Still, I feel like this is a film where the two minority characters, Evelyn and Father Perez, exist mainly to serve the needs and help save the Caucasian lead family.
- Similarly—-and I won’t spoil anyone—-but Evelyn seems to be a character whose value is weighed by what information and support in the fight against the demon she can offer to Mia and doesn’t have a narrative arc or real independent role of her own.
The Verdict: In conclusion, this is a horror movie based around atmosphere, a slow burn and build, and that works only because you grow to care about the family involved. While it works hard to create more rounded female characters than in usual horror fare (a low bar, I know), and it does pass the Bechdel test on several occasions, it still has problematic racial aspects and almost falls too heavily into the Magical Negro/Magical Person of Color who knows about the occult trope. Overall, if you want a creepy albeit not terrifying experience for Halloween and a movie with well-rounded female characters who interact meaningfully then this might be the film for you. It’s definitely earned its B-.