JANUARY 19, 2015
It never would have happened if I was still on the clock for the "A DAY" part of the site's name, but I missed Annabelle in theaters last fall due to my dumb decision to move during October, which is always so busy anyway. I COULD have gone one day instead of seeing Dracula Untold, but Badass wanted a review of that and the times just happened to work less in Annabelle's favor. By the time I had time again, it was gone (which is why I ended up seeing fucking Ouija), and trust me it bummed me out - I hadn't missed a major horror release theatrically since 2008 (Quarantine, also a casualty of a busy October), and this was one I actually wanted to see! I rarely request blu-rays for review anymore for the same busy reasons, opting to just pick and choose from the ones I get automatically, but I made an exception here as I didn't want to let it slide any longer.
Of course, the real reason I'm so busy these days is because of the baby; daycare dropoffs, doctor's appointments, extra trips to Target and the grocery store, etc, plus, obviously, just spending time with him eats up many of the hours I otherwise would be spending in front of the TV, which is why a movie like Annabelle probably works on me better than it should. While it's forever going to be known as a killer doll movie, Chucky this ain't - with some snips it could have almost worked as a psychological piece about a mother unraveling, not unlike the recent Babadook or Canal (a dad in that one). Many of the film's scares used basic parental fears as their jumping off point (stuff falling on the baby, baby getting out of its crib, etc), and it set the tone by having the pregnant mom get stabbed by an intruder around 10 minutes in, easily hooking in worry-wort dads like me.
I wrote more about this aspect for Badass, so I don't want to repeat myself too much - go read that if you're interested in how the movie works on a parent. For non-parents, or at least ones that have learned to calm down and not think your child is in danger every second (unlike me), I'm here to tell you that the movie is pretty decent, considering all that it had working against it. It's a prequel (red flag, automatically, and don't bring Godfather II into this as it's half sequel) to one of the most acclaimed studio horror films in recent memory, but it didn't have James Wan directing - his frequent DP John Leonetti took over the reins. And while normally the idea of keeping it in the family is a fine one, Leonetti seems to have a strange knack for directing much-hated followups: his previous films are Butterfly Effect 2 (the worst one of the series!) and the abysmal Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It also lacked the Warrens, who are the real-life keepers of the real Annabelle doll (which is a Raggedy Ann, for the record - rights issues had them create their own for the movie) and were a big part of why The Conjuring was more interesting than the usual haunted house movie. In fact I think the entire movie is made up; it's hard to even say "Well the doll is real" when it's not the same one, nor is it using any of the real doll's backstory.
Because, as you might have guessed from the "It scared me as a parent!" intro, this movie doesn't focus on Donna and Angie, the college students who owned the doll (a gift from Donna's mother) and were the inspiration for the characters we met in the Conjuring's opening sequence (which we see a few seconds of again here, though Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are nowhere in sight). As they got the doll from a store in used condition, no one - not even the Warrens - knows the full story of how it came to be haunted/possessed, and so the filmmakers have made it up (whether they applied an existing script to the story or wrote it from scratch is unknown). What they've offered is a bit of a Rosemary's Baby riff at times, complete with a Manson connection - the plot kicks off when some cult members murder our hero couple's neighbors and then make their way into their own home, stabbing the mother (the baby is OK!) and smearing blood all over the doll, which other than being creepy - like all dolls of that type are - was seemingly normal until that point.
But unlike Chucky, who also got his start after a run-in with a murderer, Annabelle doesn't move or talk. I had feared that when they decided to make a full movie about her that they'd stoop to making her an animated being, instead of the motionless creep factory we met in Conjuring, but they stay the course and keep her still. There's one bit where she seems to be levitating, and I was just about to roll my eyes when I (and Mia, the heroine) realized that the doll was being held up by the demon that had latched itself onto it. Said demon is played by Joe Bishara, who performed similar duties for Insidious (the red lipstick one) and Conjuring (I forget, it was a woman though if memory serves), and works as the composer, and the makeup design is the most elaborate yet, I think. You see the process on one of the featurettes, and it seems to take hours to apply - all for a character whose presence is (thankfully, otherwise) kept to a minimum. In a time when CGI beasties are used more and more often, I truly appreciate spending the time to make a practical one when it's only going to be on-screen for a few seconds.
So without much of a presence to the demon, and Annabelle just sitting there, the movie is admittedly a bit stretched for a feature, doling out the needed plot points (calling a priest, someone getting hurt/killed, etc) a bit further apart than probably necessary. And that's why I think it might have gotten a lion's share of bad reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes score is below even a few of the Saw movies), because in between those bits it's mostly coasting on parental fears, which is fine for me but "boring" to those who can't sympathize with the terror we feel at every single little thing (I've since discovered the screenwriter is a parent himself, so he was likely drawing on the same things I'm afraid of - i.e. heavy objects falling on the baby due to an earthquake. He just has a demon sub in for the earthquake). Perhaps they drew too much on this and didn't make it scary or exciting enough for the non-parents (I'd say teens, but with an R rating they shouldn't have been trying to appease them anyway), but I assume EVERYONE can get behind the film's two biggest scare scenes: the home invasion early on, and the big basement sequence around the halfway mark.
The finale is also pretty tense, but unfortunately some folks have chosen to focus on the "racist" elements of it, which I find ludicrous. Spoilers ahead!
The heroine makes friends with Alfre Woodard, who owns a bookstore and is living with heavy guilt over her daughter's death (she fell asleep driving them home from a family gathering), and throughout the movie she's nothing but wonderful to Mia. So I almost wondered if they were going to throw in a twist where she was evil (to explain the over kindness), but as it turns out she really is just that great, and sacrifices herself to save Mia and the baby (and hopefully reunite with her daughter in the afterlife). For whatever reason, I've read more than one person see this as a hugely uncomfortable moment, because Ms. Woodard is black and the people she is saving are white, as if the filmmakers were saying "well they're expendable". To me it seems like a can't win scenario - if the character (who, again, is kind and successful and caring... and wanted to make amends for losing her daughter!) was white, people would complain that the movie was nothing but white people. And if the colors were reversed, it'd be dismissed as "another white savior" movie. Did it not cross these reviewers' minds that Alfre Woodard is just a great actress playing a role that wasn't determined by race, and people should just be happy they were able to secure her talents for "a killer doll movie"? I was actually happy that the film - which took place in the 60s - had a successful black woman and didn't make any big deal about it, only to find naysayers made it one on their own. Ms. Woodard isn't starved for work (she was in last year's Best Picture winner and currently stars as the President of the United States on State of Affairs), and with a 6 million total budget they couldn't have been paying her a fortune; I'm sure she would have turned down the role if she found it racially insensitive that her character died to save some white people.
The blu-ray has four bland featurettes that are in no way useful to anyone (except, as mentioned, seeing some of the makeup work for the demon), but the deleted scenes are definitely worth a look. In addition to a few more "as a parent this is my worst nightmare" bits (including one where the demon boils the bathwater!), there's a character named Fuller that, if my hours-old memory of the movie serves, was completely excised from the final version. He's the building's handyman, and he seems like a nice guy who's just a little off, which scares Mia every time she is forced to encounter him. One of the featurettes mentions his death (?) scene, which ISN'T among the collection, but I was surprised at how many of them had some scares (including a full blown FX sequence where the demon tears all the furniture asunder), instead of the usual "this was cut for pacing" (translation: "We cut this because it's character stuff that 15 year-olds would get bored by") footage. There isn't any explanation for their removal, and some are hard to place in the narrative, but they're still a notch above what you usually find in the cut material.
As I mentioned in my Badass piece, I'd really love to see a breakdown of the reviews between parents and non-parents, to see if the rare good reviews it got were from critics with children of their own. It's not exactly a classic even within those parameters, but it's better than I had been led to believe by (non parent!) pals who saw it last fall. Or perhaps it simply works better at home since it's a primarily interior-set movie? Or maybe they wanted Annabelle to do THIS? I dunno. I saw seething hatred from some people, and it baffled me - it's just a pretty decent little movie I won't remember in a year, same as most studio horror movies. Why was this a target?
What say you?