Annabelle (2014) Directed by John R. Leonetti. Starring Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Tree O’Toole, Eric Laden.

I can’t think of many quality scary doll movies. No doubt some dolls can be creepy but it’s a difficult feeling to translate onto film without venturing into ridiculousness. The main trap is that any movement from the doll will easily appear ridiculous, unless that’s your intent, i.e. the Chucky franchise. Off the top of my head, the only films I can think of that succeed in frightening us with their dolls are Poltergeist and Trilogy of Terror. Annabelle, the recent spin-off/prequel to The Conjuring, provides one of the duller entries not just into the creepy doll genre but to horror movies in general. To be fair, there are some decent scares but, as creepy as it is, the doll is rarely a factor in them. Nor could I get past the thin screenplay, dull main characters performed by wooden actors, and cringe-worthy racial stereotypes. And when do we retire the long haired girl dressed in a white gown as our go to ghost?

John Gordon (Ward Horton) and his pregnant wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are a young, boring couple who live in a boring suburb. Their clothes are boring, their house is boring, and their discussions about the upcoming baby are boring. Screw the late 60s counterculture they’re living in, it’s squaresville up in here, Daddy-o. Their neighbors are boring too, right up until they’re murdered by their daughter, Annabelle, who had run away to join a group of damned hippies… er, a satanic cult. After the daughter and her crazed boyfriend brutally slaughter her parents, they make their way over to the Gordons’ home and attempt to kill them as well. Mia is stabbed, the deranged boyfriend is shot by the police, and the daughter slices her own throat, bleeding her life into the creepy doll she clutches, thus giving birth to the titular Annabelle.

From there Annabelle continues its by the numbers plot, following the common pattern of most possession or haunting based movies. At first small, almost insignificant, spooky things happen, like the doll not being where it should be. Ho hum. Then the intensity ramps up until the ghost of Annabelle and a demon chase Mia around her apartment building. Some of the sequences are effective, but if you’ve seen the trailer you won’t get many surprises.

Part of the problem is how little we care for these tame characters. For any tension to build we need people we can care about and the only person worthy of our sympathy is the innocent baby. But once the goal of the demon is explained, even that tension evaporates once you realize the baby is pretty much safe. Equally frustrating is the weak mythology offered to explain the supernatural events surrounding the doll. I won’t spell it out here but suffice it to say that, considering the stacks of Occult books the characters peruse for their research, you’d think there’d be more meat to it.

Said books are provided by a character who is one of the film’s other major flaws I can’t look past, a bookstore owner played by Alfre Woodard. The minute she sees the mother and child she takes an immediate interest in them, almost as though she can hear the screenplay calling her to them. She is a textbook example of the “magical negro“, a character whose sole purpose is to rescue our white protagonists from impending danger. It’s too bad the screenwriters felt the need to resort to this unfortunate stereotype. Not satisfied with just one instance of this awful trope, the script splits the role into two with Tony Amendola filling in the second half as Father Perez. Both characters suffer, as we do, for their attempts to aid the Gordons.

At least their performances aren’t terrible as the roles are cast with recognizable and experienced actors. Annabelle Wallis, on the other hand, seems to be in a continual dream-like state as the haunted mother of a young baby. But considering the dullness of the character, her blank, dead eyes may be a deliberate acting choice. Ward Horton as her husband is equally bland and has little more to do than be absent at all the right times.

I’m inclined to complain about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the full of crap “paranormal investigators” who provided the basis for this film but, unlike The Conjuring where they are the main characters, they are not a presence in Annabelle. I don’t even recall hearing their names. Still, Annabelle is a “real” doll (no, not that Real Doll, you pervs), except that the actual “haunted” toy is a far less scary-looking Raggedy Ann doll. The stupid thing is locked up in a glass case in the Warrens’ basement as a part of the Warren Occult Museum. You can read all about Annabelle here, if you like (warning: “O Willow Waly” from The Innocents plays automatically). Or you can visit her yourself if Lorraine Warren ever schedules new tours of her museum and you happen to have $129 burning a hole in your pocket. This video is also worth a chuckle when Ed Warren points to the Simon Necronomicon and claims it to be one of the original “Books of Shadows”. You can also hear Ed tell the story of Annabelle in the same video.

If I haven’t talked about the doll very much that’s because it didn’t leave a great impression on me. With minor alteration the story could be told without Annabelle as a factor. Who needs a doll when you have a demon and a ghost? Ultimately, in spite of a few decent scares, Annabelle is not worth the time. It is merely an opportunity for James Wan to continue cashing in on The Conjuring. But with as much money as it’s made, I think it’s likely that we’ll see a sequel. Catch Annabelle on video if you must but you might as well look for your scares elsewhere, perhaps from The Innocents... Better yet, see if you can get your hands on the 1984 blaxploitation parody of Trilogy of Terror, Black Devil Doll from Hell. That at least should be worth a few laughs.

Despite its age, this article about the Warrens from two of the founders of the SGU is worth a read.

And you can learn more about the “magical negro” trope here, particularly regarding its use by Stephen King.


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