“Crazy people do crazy things, ma’am”
The story of Annabelle—a possessed Raggedy Ann doll from the 1970s—is a part of Lorraine and Ed Warren’s lore as experts in the occult. It along with the Amityville house are what the couple are most known for “combating” and thus easy fodder to provide audiences an entry point into understanding what these demonologists do. That’s why James Wan and company used them as prologues to his The Conjuring series, the former with Part 1 and the latter Part 2. Whereas Amityville already came with its own place in cinematic history, however, Annabelle had yet to make its mark. It was therefore only a matter of time (one year) before the studio cashed in to bring “her” to life as a spin-off prequel of period-specific terror.
Anyone who has seen The Conjuring knows that this possessed doll is no longer a cute and cuddly Johnny Gruelle creation. She’s now a collectible with creepy ceramic face and posh lace clothing—the type of object you put on a shelf rather than give to your child to destroy. This new look serves as wonderful fodder for demonic nightmares and as such proved an effective first scare before Wan fast-forwarded through time to follow the Warren’s experience with the Perron family’s haunted abode. The doll was malevolent, but not quite monstrous in this iteration. Two first-year nurses talked about it having the soul of a little girl seeking friendship, something director John R. Leonetti and writer Gary Dauberman decide to remind us about before ignoring it completely.
I admittedly believed Annabelle was a feature length expansion of these young women’s story—that brief prologue fleshed out like how Underworld: Rise of the Lycans reiterated what we already knew through Underworld‘s own exposition. What we actually receive, however, is the horror before they enter its orbit. This is obviously a much more interesting concept and one with the inherent creepiness of showing a little girl’s devolution towards becoming evil incarnate by way of a toy vessel atop her shelf. What made her so angry? How was she abused and/or abandoned to match the fear of prospective friends with murderous intent? Here were two questions quickly proven to possess no answers since Annabelle isn’t a little girl at all. She’s a satanic Disciple of the Ram.
What makes this switch in mythology odd is that Leonetti uses the interview with those nurses from The Conjuring as the start of his film. He allows the dialogue of what a medium supposedly told them to stand as the last thing we hear before discovering the truth. Why? Why remind us about something that won’t fit your narrative when you could have left it alone so our minds chalked the discrepancy up to confused victims? Dauberman’s script never intends to use those words as gospel, its introduction of the doll as a nameless antique without a blemish on its porcelain skin proof. He brings this inanimate object into the story without an inkling of a past beyond the factory that assembled it. The doll is a MacGuffin.
The real evil is that of a demon a cult running parallel to Charles Manson’s orgy (way to be blunt with that TV news segment preparing us for what’s to come). Annabelle Higgins is a grown adult member seeking to give up her soul. So she’s returned to the suburban home of youth in order to murder her parents in her master’s name. She ultimately dies, but not before fulfilling her duty to bring this entity into our world. Her ghost becomes its tour guide, the doll its totem, and the infant child of John (Ward Horton) and Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis—coincidence?) its purpose for remaining. Haunted by their diabolical intent, Mia forces a move (helped by her husband’s new job) to escape it.
I’m sorry, but using the doll as a bridge between worlds rather than the antagonist was a mistake. The Conjuring showed Annabelle as a “living” thing that moved on its own and stared back at you with dead eyes. Rather than continue this trend, Leonetti uses the prop as gimmick. He puts it on a rocking chair to squeak back and forth. He ignores it altogether as electronics (sewing machine and record player) turn on off-screen without provocation. And—in a moment that made me laugh out loud—he throws it to the ground so its blank gaze appears in the gap between a bedroom door and the floor that Mia peers through. So much of what happens with this doll is better suited for comedy than horror.
This is what happens when it has no power of its own. Suddenly the scariest bits arrive when it’s absent—moments when the ghost of Annabelle and/or the specter of demonic sorcery run amok instead. There’s a scene of the ghost running towards Mia that earns a jolt, it changing from child to adult in the blink of an eye. There’s another in the basement where the demon exits the shadows with almost as much dread and patience as Black Phillip in The Witch. It’s only through “real” attacks that we feel nervous for Mia. Had Alfre Woodard‘s wise mother weighed down by tragedy (and therefore keen to accept the impossible) entered the tale earlier to lend credence to the true enemy, we may have invested more.
But Dauberman doesn’t want that. He wants to keep Evelyn shrouded in secrecy. (Is she helping or pushing Mia closer to evil?) He wants to let John’s priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola) stand as the solitary believer because doing so pretends the film resembles The Exorcist despite such a comparison being blasphemous. It’s almost as though Dauberman doesn’t know what to do at all—like he wrote this script about evil forces torturing a first-time mother before the studio bought it to pop Annabelle in for increased marketing gains. This is how little importance the doll holds. Take her out and you might have something worthwhile because you’d no longer be trying to shoehorn her in cheap mood shots devoid of fright. She distracts from her own movie.
Unfortunately I’m not certain that would work considering the plot’s many conveniences. It uses John’s occupation for marital stress, relocation, and proximity to the aftermath of accidents pertinent to their tale. It uses neighbors as pawns to set everything in motion at both homes and wastes money on casting a detective (Eric Ladin) who does nothing besides tell the Gordons what we already know before pointing her in the direction of finding answers within Evelyn’s bookstore (one that just happens to have an occult section on display in the window). Add the desire to forcibly wield archaic concepts of a “mother’s love” during a pre-feminist era and your eyes won’t close in fear: they’ll roll. Despite showing much promise in vignette, Annabelle squanders its opportunity to succeed alone.