Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Films of 2014: Annabelle

It’s become fashionable to hate and criticize the blockbuster horror movie Annabelle (2014). By contrast, its source material, The Conjuring (2013) was widely and exaggeratedly-praised. So perhaps some critics felt they had to come down hard on the sequel for the sake of “balance.”

What the reviewers giveth, they also taketh away.

I have no horse in this race, but it appears to me that Annabelle (2014) is one of those horror movies that can’t win, at least in terms of critical response. The movie adopts a slow-burn approach to its horror storytelling, and takes care not to reveal the doll committing violence on-screen. This approach to the material apparently upset several critics, who feel like they were owed a movie in which they could see the creepy doll going around attacking people. 

These critics term Annabelle boring, and are longing, apparently, for Chucky-style carnage.

Had the movie taken that more overt, less nuanced approach, however, I feel the same critics would have likely complained that the movie wasn’t scary, just violent and action-packed.

Horror movies fall into this trap a lot. Critics don’t actually like or appreciate horror as a genre very much, and so will use any argument that they think will stick in order to demean a film of this type.  Annabelle is damned if does, damned if it doesn’t.

My impression of Annabelle is that the director, John Leonetti, worked over-time to keep the mysterious aspects of the doll alive, and quite successfully so, while also generating some significantly scary moments throughout.

One scene involving a hotel basement, a storage cage, and an elevator, is beautifully and effectively staged, for example.  The moment builds to a fever pitch of terror, and really gets the blood running.

As I indicate above, many critics complained that the movie is boring, but “boring” isn’t a legitimate criticism, in my book.  No movie is boring if you meet it half way, or choose to engage with it. Some movies are flat, and I suppose that makes us feel bored. But generally, I feel that, as viewers and reviewers, we are responsible for our own viewing experience, and whether something is boring or not.

For me, Annabelle is an intriguing and well-crafted film because, outside the horror, it attempts to erect a sense of place and time.  The film is set in 1970, in the age of Charles Manson, and many of the details it presents (in terms of The Family, and in terms of daytime TV), help to forge a feeling for that span.  I have some personal memories of the seventies (though from a little later on, around 1975 or so…) that Annabelle successfully awakened for me, and so I feel it is more carefully and intelligently crafted than many reviewers suggest.

Indeed, I’ve seen reviews that call Annabelle one of the worst films of the year. That is, quite simply, a terrible exaggeration, and thus unfair.  The movie is often run-of-the-mill or predictable in nature, but from time to time it really pulls off a spectacularly creepy moment, or does a good job of capturing the vibe of its seventies age.

Honestly, I don’t know what else people expect of studio horror movie at this point.  Chucky has cornered the market on cussing, murderous dolls, and it’s encouraging to see another “killer doll” movie attempt to take things in a somewhat different direction.

So while I wouldn’t claim Annabelle matches the artistic success of The Babadook (2014) or The Battery (2014) or Honeymoon (2014), I see no reason to attack it as terminally-flawed either. Instead, it simply is what it is: an effectively made, mildly generic, entertaining horror movie.

“Mothers are closer to God than any living creature.”

In 1970, a young expectant woman, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her husband, John (Ward Horton), a doctor in training, plan for the arrival of their first baby.  John brings Mia home a gift: a collectible doll she has wanted for a long time.

One night, however, fate takes an ugly turn as deranged cultists break into Mia and John’s house, and attack them. Mia is stabbed, but survives, as does her baby. The female cultist, Annabelle Higgins, dies in close proximity to the doll, and Mia wants it destroyed.  John throws the blood-stained doll in the garbage.

After a mysterious fire at their house, Mia and John move to an apartment building. While they unpack, they discover the cast-off doll in the last box.

Mia decides, this time, to keep it.

That decision has fateful consequences, however, as strange and frightening events begin to occur. Mia comes to fear that a demonic force using the doll as a conduit seeks to steal the soul of her baby, Leah…

“You’ve got to lock the doors. It’s a different world now.”

I would be lying if I claimed I felt no personal connection to some aspects of Annabelle.

Many scenes in the film involve Mia staying at home, on bed rest, watching day-time soaps such as General Hospital. While watching episodes, she intermittently sews clothes on a sewing machine.

I possess very vivid memories of my own mother, in the 1970s, sitting at her sewing machine while watching the very same show.  I even recognized one of the characters on that program – Jessie -- during Annabelle.  It sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t.

In the early seventies, few Americans, at least in my town, could afford to shop and buy new clothes at stores. Instead, Moms sewed clothes for their spouses and children all the time, after buying huge spools of material at the store. The film recalls this time and this economic reality without making a big point of it. 

Similarly, my Mom went to work as a teacher in the late 1970s, but I vividly remember days staying home and having to watch One Life to Live, General Hospital, and Edge of Night. Back then, there was no cable and no streaming.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the afternoons were dominated by sudsy soaps of this type.

Also, I conjured up another forgotten memory during Annabelle. My sister owned a tall blond-haired doll she named Karen. I hated that doll. Karen was roughly as tall as I was, and when I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, I would have to pass my sister’s open doorway and Karen too, silently standing guard nearby.

Even the film’s news footage about Manson and the mad-dog cultist aspect of Annabelle capture a time in the culture that my friend and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne, termed “the wake-up from the hippie dream.”  Annabelle is about that exact epoch in our culture; when an idea of beauty and peace got perverted into something scary; when people started locking their doors…out of fear.

So perhaps I’m pre-disposed to like Annabelle since it captures, for me, something of my personal experience as a kid growing up in the 1970s.

But, importantly, not every movie about the seventies gets the details right, or activates the memory in the way this horror films does.  For instance, I’m tired of all the 1970s movies and TV shows featuring a “key” party for adults who want to cheat on their spouses.

So far as I know, this kind of event never happened to anyone I knew in those days, and yet it has been accepted as fact of middle class life, when it clearly wasn’t. Rather, the key party was part of a narrow experience, and then picked up by the pop culture as somehow signifying life in the 1970s.

Annabelle focuses on little details instead, ones that create the impression of reality. The rat-a-tat-tat of a family sewing machine, for instance, or a newscast about “cults,” and worrying about Charles Manson. These moments seem much more intriguing and world-building than the presence of simple jump scare.  I could go watch Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 with Joel, if that’s what I wanted in my horror: pure mechanics.

I’ve also read complaints that the main characters in Annabelle somehow aren’t fully individualized or interesting enough to carry the movie.  Again, I suspect this kind of criticism comes from the general critic’s lack of understanding of horror.  Characters must be distinguished, it’s true, but also be generic enough so that we can identify with them; we can fill the gaps with our experience and thus put ourselves in their shoes. 

Consider the characters of The Evil Dead (1983), for instance. There’s two sets of boyfriends and 
girlfriends, and an odd girl out.

How much do we really know about their backgrounds?  Almost nothing.

And that’s good, because we can then imprint our own fears and angst upon them.

The characters in Annabelle, a pregnant mother-to-be and a largely absent father-to-be are distinguished enough that the audience cares about them, and that’s what is most important.  They aren’t the most colorful folks ever to headline a movie, but they don’t need to be.  I often have a difficult time watching films set in the 1970s, because modern actors just don’t look right for that era.  They’re too big, or too muscular. The actors in this film actually look right: skinny and not-idealized, though very young.

And the great Alfre Woodard is also here, as Evelyn, a friend of Mia’s. Woodard tells a heart-breaking story in the film, one regarding her daughter, and it feels so true and potent in her hands that it’s hard to argue that all Annabelle cares about is slick entertainment.  Woodard’s sincerity in the part takes the movie to a grander playing field, to one concerning the decisions we make here during our lives, and the reasons behind them.

Some moments in Annabelle are genuinely startling, or suspenseful.  Early on, Mia awakes from a slumber, and gazes through the neighbor’s bedroom window.  The events that unfold next are sudden and shocking, and will make you leap out of your seat.  It’s not so much the jump scare effect that makes the scene work, but the idea of seeing something you are not prepared for, or that is inexplicable.

Likewise, in my introduction, I mentioned the scene set in the basement.  Mia takes an item down to storage in her apartment building, and sees some horrible creature dwelling there, in the dark.  She runs back to the elevator, gets in and presses the button to return to her floor. The elevator door shuts. 

But the elevator goes nowhere. And the doors re-open.

She frantically hits the button again, peering out into the dark, scanning for that…thing.

This chronology repeats three or four times, until it becomes clear that the elevator is going nowhere, and Mia must tread out into the dark, and find another exit. 

The scene plays on the (probably subconscious) fear that we can’t escape a pursuer; that the tools we have built (like an elevator) are useless in the face of something supernatural and malevolent. 

The horror scene continues and builds as Mia runs up a staircase, a demonic creature lurking behind her.  In a flash of lightning, its face is revealed, and you’ll definitely feel a shiver. The moment works just as intended.

At other times, the horror touches are downright poetic. Mia again climbs her apartment stairs at one juncture, and diabolical drawings -- sketched by neighboring kids, or perhaps Annabelle -- land in her path like wind-strewn flower petals.  Each new arrival is more disturbing than the last.

I have some questions about the narrative in Annabelle (including precisely how the doll and the demon are connected), but for the most part, my concerns are immaterial. The film creates a memorable world, and crafts colorful and dynamic scenes of terror. 

Would a better film feature sub-text that relates to us today, living now?

Yeah, it probably would. 

Annabelle isn’t a great horror film. Instead, it’s a better-than-average, serviceable one that gets the job done.  It gives you the creeps, and it doesn’t do it in the most craven, predictable way possible, with an ambulatory doll stalking victims.  Instead, a creepy seventies vibe dominates the picture, and that’s a good thing.

So go into this one with your eyes open and know what you’re watching here: a professionally-shot and meticulously edited Hollywood horror movie. Annabelle passes the time, hits a few high notes, and then it’s over and you forget about it. 

At least the movie makes sense, which is something one can’t necessarily say of The Conjuring.

Actually, I’ll take Annabelle and its slow-burn horror over The Conjuring’s supernatural gymnastics any day.

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