Film Review: Of Dolls, Terror, and the Human Heart

The Serious Supernatural Movement: A Critical Look at Annabelle (2014) Directed by John R. Leonetti

Review by Colin Scharf

I checked out of horror films in the mid-2000s due to the proliferation of ultraviolent bloodfests à la Saw and Hostel. To me, half-naked women getting dismembered isn’t scary; it’s gratuitous and uninspired writing. So it’s a relief that this decade has seen big box office horror turn the camera away from gore and torture porn (along with horror-comedy and its degenerate offspring, spoof horror) back to classic supernatural motifs: suspense, atmosphere, and—gasp!—character.

The fundamental tenet of the Serious Supernatural Movement is conscious character development. No clichés, no tropes, no throwaway knife/claw/demon fodder—but if those elements do exist, they are used in clever and inventive ways. The problem with a lot of horror is that the characters are often soulless meat bags shrieking and running until their guts spill all over the screen. Take the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake: you root for Leatherface because you don’t care about the characters. I felt the same way about Cabin in the Woods. That film tried, but the characters felt cliché, and I stopped watching because I didn’t care whether they lived or died. I know I wasn’t supposed to care, but that made the experience all the more hollow.

We can expect more from horror. The genre has the unique ability to tap our most primal fears—darkness, isolation, death, the unknown—and make us keenly aware of what we’re truly made of. How many people avoided the beach after Jaws (1975)? How many started going to church after The Exorcist? How did you feel staring into deep holes after watching The Ring (2002)? And how many felt uncomfortable going outside at night after Fire in the Sky (1993)?

annabelle-eye

Great characters are born from great writing and great writing is born from writers who care about the exploring the human experience. Recent films like Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring (2013), Insidious (2010), House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011), 28 Days Later (2002), and Let The Right One In (2008) all focus on developing character, and because of this, the films with basic horror premises—terror doll, haunted house, possession, Satanists, zombies, vampires—rise above the schlock and drek because we’re invested in the characters.

The Exorcist set the standard. Friedkin’s film transcends simple scare-for-scare horror movie tactics through deep characterization, palpable atmosphere, and psychological and subliminal terror. The incredible actors establish their characters as real people, and in doing so open a door between worlds: the viewer enters the film not a passive popcorn muncher but as a mother worried over her sick daughter; a priest questioning his faith; a bumbling detective working to uncover the truth. The movie makes direct contact with the id. You question the noises in the dark long after the end credits’ shrieking violins. You question your defenses against evil. You question your sanity. The film exhausts all the pathological causes for Regan’s affliction—ADHD, schizophrenia, temporal lobe lesions—before settling on demonic possession. That movie is not about the demon; it’s about people lost in the dark, nebulous void of the universe.

Annabelle, the spin-off of 2013’s spooky The Conjuring, is the most recent installment representative film of this movement. (Incidentally, James Wan, Conjuring director and Annabelle producer, directed Saw in 2004.) While Annabelle fails to reach The Conjuring’s level of dread and suspense (its scariest moments are basically lingering shots of Annabelle), the film makes an effort to present rounded characters in a believable world.

This newest addition to the “Devil Doll” subgenre stars Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton as young married couple Mia (Rosemary’s Baby, anyone?) and John Gordon. Think frightened Betty Draper and youthful Ward Cleaver (or maybe even a grown Beav). Mia is pregnant; John is a doctor. Despite what other critics say, I viewed their scene-to-scene interactions as refreshing: instead of embodying the Complete Asshole or Total Dolt, John is sensitive and caring.

After an argument, he gives Mia a present he’d been saving to celebrate the baby’s birth: a long white box containing a ghoulish porcelain doll for which Mia has long been searching (re: Wan’s Dead Silence, which features a similar white box containing a ventriloquist dummy).

Look Familiar?
Look Familiar?

Terror ensues when two Satanists break into the Gordons’ house and stab Mia’s pregnant belly. The Satanists are trying to conjure forth a demon through murder. Luckily, John clobbers the male intruder before he kills Mia. The female Satanist, meanwhile, commits suicide while clutching the Annabelle doll. A teardrop of blood slips into the doll’s eye socket, establishing connection with the demon—in the logic of the film, demons cannot possess inanimate objects—that utilizes the doll as a conduit to terrify the wounded family.

Thankfully, Mia and her baby survive the attack. John is absent from the majority of the supernatural disturbances plaguing Mia (a Jiffy Pop stovetop fire; drawings produced by the demon depicting Mia and her baby squashed by a semi; a levitating Annabelle), but what I found refreshing is that he believes that Mia is under supernatural attack—and not just a stir-crazy housewife. In one scene, after Annabelle causes a real ruckus (from which John was absent), John says to Mia: “I believe you. I love you.”

My reaction was two-fold. Wow! I thought. A horror husband supporting his wife! How daring! On the flipside, his support avoids the consequences of not believing Mia, which would’ve complicated and layered Mia’s—and the film’s—terror and isolation. With John by her side (or, mostly, at the hospital) Annabelle remains the Alpha and Omega of terror.

Mia’s primary concern is keeping her newborn baby safe from the demon. Like any demon, this one thirsts for a soul (why can’t it just want a Coors?). According to the film’s rules, souls must be offered (sound familiar?). Babies can’t offer their souls, and by the final act, it’s apparent that the demon actually wants Mia. The film’s most emotionally crushing moment occurs in the final act: the demon’s manifestations are peaking, and Leah has disappeared into the ether. Another of Mia’s dolls appears in the baby’s crib and taunts Mia. She bashes the doll against the crib, then hurls it across the room. The doll turns into the baby. Mia crumples, thinking she’s just murdered her infant. This is the emotional climax, and where the film should’ve ended.

Unfortunately, the intended emotional climax splatters on the pavement in perhaps the most ridiculous and blatantly offensive scene in recent memory. Mia’s friend Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) is the clichéd benevolent African-American character: she’s a single black female/successful bookshop owner/vilomah/spirtualist/martyr. When her final decision in the film saves the white family, we’re supposed to feel thankful for Evelyn, and relieved that the Gordons are safe.

Well, I didn’t. It’s a tired and offensive cliché that black characters must sacrifice themselves for the good of the white protagonists (and for the benefit of the presumedly mostly-white audience).

Annabelle also features detective and priest characters ripped from The Exorcist. They do little more than awkwardly deliver lines to progress the plot. In The Exorcist, every character had dimensions: Kinderman is a chatty cinephile; Burke Dennings a charming drunkard. And Father Merrin—played by the brilliant Max Von Sydow—becomes, through his excellent dialogue and firm determination, the film’s lone light of hope. In each of The Exorcist’s characters, their dialogue and actions help you imagine their lives outside the story. While Annabelle attempts this, (the priest listens to baseball; the detective has extensive knowledge of Satanic cults) these underdeveloped characters on the periphery feel more like copies of copies, rather than real people.

Annabelle succeeds in the atmosphere department, thanks to filmmaking chops likely honed during Wan and Co.’s torture porn years. Set in 1968, giant classic cars, pastel polyester dresses, mustard- and avocado-colored crewelwork decorating wood-paneled walls, and fuzzy black & white TV bring the era to life. Moody shadows soak scenes, broken occasionally by shafts of mid-afternoon sun lancing between heavy curtains. You can almost smell the stale cigarette smoke baked into the woodwork of their apartment. Shots linger (especially on Annabelle) building tension, building… tension… building… BUILDING…

…BUILLLLDINNNNNNNNNG…

Spooky things do happen—and if you’re covering your eyes, you’ll hear the scares, as the audio is mixed to deafening volumes, a sort of smoke-and-mirrors trick to keep you scared. In one of Annabelle’s better-crafted scenes, we peer through the Gordons’ gauzy bedroom window curtains into their neighbor’s house as the Satanic intruders rush into their neighbors’ bedroom. The bedside lamp blacks out before we witness the murders. In another scene, Mia encounters the physical manifestation of the demon—a muscular, black, horned beast—in her apartment building’s basement. These blood-pumping set pieces left plenty to the imagination, one of the stronger tenets of Serious Supernatural filmmaking.

Despite the film’s baroque settings, the characters don’t really interact with their world. They just sort of move from place to place until the end credits. There are narrow hallway shots, apartment building stairwell shots, a scene where the demon has scrawled with crayon all over the nursery walls—but we’ve seen these images before. Once the supernatural elements opened up, the setting became more of a framework for movement rather than an interactive environment. Check out Session 9 or The Shining to see setting utilized in more memorable and terrifying ways.

Much of Annabelle’s horror stems from the doll itself. Annabelle’s cracked grey-green face, blood-blushed lips and cheeks, and rimless glaring eyes connected directly with my childhood fears of Grandma’s freaky porcelain dolls that stared out from atop the dresser while I lay in the guest bed, pretending to sleep.

While Annabelle is a step away from unthinking gore fests of the previous decade, it doesn’t quite hit the mark of a truly emotional, engaging experience that lingers once you leave the artificial darkness of the theater. Still, it’s refreshing that Serious Supernatural Horror appears to be sticking around.

Annabelle’s problems lay not with the actors, or lack of earned scares, or lack of environmental interaction; the real issue with Annabelle is that the story fails to connect with the heart. It shakes borrowed scares in your face and screams Boo. Overall I enjoyed the film, and sincerely appreciate the production team’s attempts to craft a character-driven horror film, but overall they have little idea about how to puncture the human heart beyond any literal sense.

That’s where horror needs to strike: not the eyes, ears, or that fizzling connection between whatever body part is being flayed on screen and our own. Real horror possesses the heart.

3/5 Inanimate Anthropomorphic Objects Possessed By Hellspawn

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2 thoughts on “Film Review: Of Dolls, Terror, and the Human Heart”

  1. Looking for a movie title…a young woman drugs and holds hostage several young women and dresses them and treats them as dolls..I seem to remember her father being a doctor.

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