Release date (India):
October 10, 2014
John R. Leonetti
Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe
This film scared the hell out of me but also pissed me off.
There are four stages in watching Annabelle: first comes the quick entry into eeriness as three youngsters describe their experiences with a doll to real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren who we met in 2013’s The Conjuring, and we immediately swoop into a flashback involving scenes of bizarre violence; phase two features long periods of waiting between flashes of fear, where suspense occasionally threatens to give way to boredom; third comes unrelenting terror; finally, the film yanks us out of that mood, rubbing its combined silliness and insidiousness in our faces with a pseudo-intellectual, wannabe-spiritual voiceover quoting one of the Bible’s most famous passages, in a context that gives it a ridiculous interpretation.
“For greater love than this hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends” – these words by Jesus, recounted in St John’s gospel, are about making the ultimate sacrifice for a loved one. Annabelle’s overly literal writer, however, presents it as an endorsement of suicide.
Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring, directed by that film’s cinematographer John R. Leonetti. It is produced by James Wan who directed The Conjuring, Saw and Insidious. After the opening scene with those petrified youngsters discussing a sinister doll, the film rewinds to a year earlier when we meet young John and his pregnant wife Mia. Their story is set in late 1960s America, a fact we derive towards the start of the film from news reports playing on TV of the widely chronicled Charles Manson serial killings in 1969. John gifts Mia a life-sized doll she had been trying to find for her collection. What follows are a series of incidents which seem to result from the doll being possessed by their neighbours’ daughter Annabelle Higgins who, we learn, had run away from home to join a satanic cult.
CAUTION – POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD:
As with most horror flicks, religion is crucial to Annabelle. We first meet Mia and John in church. They move cities but their local priest remains the same. No explanation is offered, so one assumes he is not an individual but a symbol of the Church’s constancy in the lives of a good ol’ white, Christian, smooth-complexioned, clean-cut, upper-middle-class, traditional couple.
Yes, the sarcasm there is intentional. Often by design and sometimes perhaps unwittingly as they try to conjure up an ominous atmosphere in Annabelle, writer Gary Dauberman and director John R. Leonetti have ended up with racist undertones and misogynistic overtones in their film.
For instance, an African American neighbour gazes in a discomfiting manner at Mia, a look we understand only when we get to know her better; a look clearly intended to tap into reservations about ‘the other’ among sections of the audience. When we first meet the rough-skinned Fr Perez – not Jones or Smith, but Perez – he has a suspicious air about him too. Why does he want to photograph a baby in his parish? Why does Mia hesitate to be photographed by him?
Cashing in on your audience’s racism to manipulate them counts as racism too. The writer’s limitations are evident from the fact that this use of Fr Perez is a contrast to the pointed effort the film otherwise makes to place religion on a pedestal. The screenplay’s poorly fleshed out strategy involves similarly scattering red herrings throughout the film. Why, for instance, is Mia so vehemently against the baby name Phyllis? Why is it hinted that the couple earlier lived in a place where they could afford not to lock their house? Why is an ugly doll with distorted features at the centre of the action, when this story as told by the real-life Warrens is about a Raggedy Ann doll? Is a ballooning case of popcorn meant to remind us of Mia’s pregnant belly which was exposed in a hospital moments earlier? Who is the boy on the staircase who stops his sister from speaking to Mia? What is the import of the grotesque gargoyle on the church building?
Mia and John are shown as representative of all that is virtuous – read: religious and conformist – in American society. They are perfectly turned out creatures in a perfectly ordered home who do not once raise their voices with each other. He is a medical student, she a homemaker. The only work we see her doing in the home is stitching dresses, we can’t make out whether for her dolls or her baby Lea. He even patronisingly speaks of her setting up her own “sweat shop” in the house. Oh these feminine, housewifely hobbies – so sweet, no?
The church is their constant refuge. When Mia tells John she’s been seeing things and he says they must get help, she wonders if he wants her to visit a shrink. Instead, he takes her to see Fr Perez because that’s what his family does. When the two do marginally stray, they – she in particular – are roundly punished by the screenplay. Minutes after they thumb wrestle in church instead of paying attention to the priest’s sermon and she, the good lil’ wife, clashes with him over their unborn child’s name, the first attack occurs. When hard-working John misses their dinner date, she appears to sulk. The most chilling episode in the story takes place right then.
Motherhood and feminine virtue, in the way a patriarchal world views them, are of essence here. Good Mia is always shown trim, prim and in the light; wild Annabelle is in shadow and darkness, with unkempt hair. Repeated stress is laid on Mia’s determination to prioritise her baby’s life over her own. When she is pregnant, she tells John that if he ever has to choose between her and the baby, he must always pick the baby. Much later, she reminds him of this conversation. Whatever else may be unintentional in the film, this certainly is not. Annabelle is filled with subliminal comments on the pro-choice/pro-life debate. At one point, when a woman attempts suicide to save her baby, she is reminded that her life is precious – not in itself but because her husband and child need her. A husbandless, childless woman is not stopped from killing herself though. Clearly her life is unimportant in Dauberman-Leonetti’s social order. This echoes a narrative often heard in the real world where a woman’s worth is measured in terms of her usefulness to family and/or society. In the latter instance, the woman had accidentally killed her child; her own life then is the price she must pay to be redeemed.
Symbols of motherhood are strewn across the film. At one point Mia absent-mindedly caresses a mini-replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta, the statue of the dead Jesus in Mary’s arms. A photo of Mia with Lea exemplifies serenity in contrast to the turmoil they have just survived. Fr Perez equates motherhood with purity and oneness with the Creator. It’s interesting that this deification of women in most faiths is accompanied by an equivalent demonisation, especially of female rebels, as part of a cleverly crafted agenda that offers us a spectrum of feminine stereotypes from virgin and mother to witch, from devi, Lakshmi and Durga to apshakun and daayin.
Annabelle’s subliminal messaging is far from innocuous but Team Dauberman-Leonetti have left themselves enough room to claim that this film is, in fact, a feminist psychological thriller. John is never shown witnessing what the spirit does to his wife; he only sees her reactions to those occurrences. He even gently suggests to Mia that she may be hallucinating about a spirit because of possible post-partum depression. When at one point Mia repeatedly bashes the doll against the crib, we get a sense that she might be hitting Lea thinking she’s the doll. So it could be argued by some that the entire spookfest is a result of the imaginings of Mia’s troubled mind. As it happens, this clever diversion is contradicted by other occurrences in the film.
No doubt Annabelle is scary as hell, thankfully sans gore and gooey substances; but it is also stupid in places, borderline racist and out-and-out misogynistic. The film’s many bows to others in the horror genre include a baby carriage in a brilliantly blood-curdling basement scene, which looks like a replica of the pram from Rosemary’s Baby. The naming of Mia and John can’t be a coincidence either. So is the film as good as The Conjuring? In terms of scares – yes; overall package – no. Have fun but please DON’T leave your brains at home.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
Trivia: Mia is played by British actress Annabelle Wallis who made her big-screen debut in 2005 with Dil Jo Bhi Kahey, a Bollywood film starring Amitabh Bachchan and Revathy. Romesh Sharma, best-known for producing the Bachchan-Kimi Katkar-starrer Hum, launched his son Karan Sharma as an actor in DJBK. The film was a critical and box-office flop.
CBFC Rating (India):
MPAA Rating (US):
R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror)
Release date in the US:
October 3, 2014
Poster courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annabelle_(film)