US, 2014, 98 minutes, Colour.
Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfred Woodard.
Directed by John Leonetti.
Annabelle is the name of a deadly doll. Not that that was her real name. Rather, when a sinister young woman, daughter of the next door neighbours to Mia and John, kills her parents with a cult associate, and is wounded, her blood drips down onto the nameless dial doll who then becomes the deadly Annabelle.
Over the decades that have been many films about deadly dolls. Lionel Barrymore starred in a 1930s horror film, Devil Doll. Then there were the sinister dolls, Dead of Night, with Michael Redgrave, and then Anthony Hopkins in Magic. In the 1980s and 90s, there was a series of horror films, Child’s Play, with the doll, Chucky (and the director of Annabelle, John Leonetti, a longtime cinematographer, actually directed Child’s Play 3).
There is another horror connection, this time with the Insidious series and The Conjuring. In the latter, the story is told of real-life Catholic exorcists, a couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren. They were associated with the Amityville hauntings and played a part in riding the house of the devil. Needless to say, some commentators were quite wary of the claims of the Warrens, who were confident and appeared in many television programs and series. Later in Annabelle, the parish priest, Father Peres, suggests that the couple who own the deadly doll, Mia and John, should contact the Warrens. They don’t, but there is a reference at the end as to the final location for the deadly doll, in their museum (with the comment that the doll – which is a Raggedy Ann doll, not porcelain as in the film (perhaps too much information!) - is still blessed twice a month).
The film is not one of those gory horror films that is ugly to look at. Rather, this is something of a slow-burner, gradually building up a sense of terror, especially for the pregnant Mia and after the birth of her daughter, Lia. Every now and then, sometimes more often, there is one of those editing jump cuts which has the audience jumping in their chairs. But in this one, atmosphere is important.
There is quite an explicit Catholic tone in the film, with a couple going to a fairly crowded mass with many young adults (the setting is 1970) with some effective sermons by the parish priest, Father Peres (Tony Amendola). He preaches on sacrifice and laying down one’s life for others just as Jesus did. In fact, after all the events of the film, Mia and John go to Mass once again and Father Peres repeats this sermon about sacrifice. He also preaches against fear of fear. And, he is presented as approachable, the couple coming to him with their difficulties and his offering to help out – which has some temporary dire effects on him, a touch of Satanic possession and a stint in hospital.
The screenplay introduces themes of demons and demonic presence and how the devil into enters into such things as dolls to torment humans and try to take their souls.
The other central character is a book shopkeeper called Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) who is sympathetic towards Mia, offers her books, comes to the apartment to discussion discuss the demons and is finally confronted by the devil doll.
Some of the editing cuts are startling, but the film, by and large, is not so startling, relying on audiences to identify with the young couple and their troubles, the impact of the deadly Annabelle, the religious dimensions of the couple’s experience, building up to a confrontation, not nearly as explicit or melodramatic as in films like The Exorcist, but indicating that it is not improbable for Annabelle to get out of her museum glass case for a sequel.
1. The horror film, but less grizzly and gory than most, relying on atmosphere? The 1970s setting, beliefs in demons and possession?
2. The tradition of devil doll films, the dolls possessed, having an evil personality, cruel and violent?
3. The problem, the discussions about the situation, the opening discussion about the doll and its behaviour, the flashback?
4. The link with The Conjuring, the exorcising couple, the Warrens, their history, with Amityville and The Conjuring and other stories? The indication that their help would be sought? The end, the doll in their museum, blessed twice a month?
5. The couple, their love, apartment, Mia’s pregnancy? John and his studies? Tense moments between the two? His gift of the doll for Mia’s collection? The doll, its face, dress, somewhat bizarre and ugly, sitting on the shelf with the other dolls?
6. The couple as devout, going to Mass, the priest and his homily, the focus on sacrifice, for the good of others, quoting John’s Gospel and the laying down of life for friends? The priest’s personality, friendly, the ritual celebrations, talking with a couple, their going to him for advice? His homily on fighting fear? His comment that the best image of the love of God’s heart is the love of a mother for her child? His visit, his offering to take the doll, his being attacked, possessed, shouting at the door? His collapse, in hospital? His giving the same sermon at the end after Evelyn’s death, laying down life for friends?
7. The neighbours at Mass, pleasant, the scream in the night, the story of their daughter and her going to a cult? Their appearing, murdering the parents? The images of Annabelle as young, as adult, as a ghost, haunting the house, haunting Mia, the attack, the blood dripping from Annabelle on to the doll and the doll becoming Annabelle?
8. The effect on Mia, the sinister action of the sewing machine, the heat and the explosion on the stove, John and his care? The attacks by the ghost? The doll? Mia stabbed, the hospital, the birth of the child? Lia?
9. The device of the film giving a shock-jump every ten minutes or so, the audience jumping, and the sense of growing menace? Mia alone with the baby, her devotion to the baby, John not coming as promised, being trapped, the priest shouting at the door, the ghost of Annabelle, the rescue? The mystery of how the doll was there after being put in the rubbish then appearing in the boxes when the couple moved house?
10. The continued threats to the baby? The writing on the roof, the taking of a soul?
11. The character Evelyn, her store, interest in Mia? The gift of the book for the baby? The visits, their talking, explaining aspects of demonology? Coming to rescue Mia, her support, the threat to the baby, but the doll substituting? Evelyn, her own history with her daughter, going on to the window sill, giving herself, her death, and the seeming death of the doll?
12. The aftermath, the priest and his sermon, happy times for Mia and John? The doll and the sale – and going to the Museum of the Warrens?