Annabelle (2014) – Conjuring the Mediocre

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Upon the release of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), it seemed pretty clear to anyone with a pulse that its side-story about a demonically possessed doll named Annabelle would make a future appearance. New Line Cinema loves horror franchises, and as soon as the numbers for The Conjuring came in Annabelle (2014) became inevitable. Directed by John R. Leonetti, the second entry attempts to capitalize on previous success. The film released to largely negative reviews, but many of those reviews judged it in the shadow of its predecessor.

However, the film itself may not be so terrible when judged on its own merits.

The Story of Annabelle

John and Mia Form expect their first baby soon. Mia, collects porcelain dolls (a clear indicator that John should file for divorce). John bring home a rare doll that Mia had been coveting for some time. She names it Annabelle. Later that evening, just after going to bed, Mia hears a terrified scream from the next door neighbors. John runs over and finds the neighbors brutally stabbed to death. Unbeknownst to Mia, after killing their neighbors, the murderers hid in her home. The invaders stab Mia just before the male attacker is shot by the police. The other attacker, a woman, slits her own throat while holding the doll.

The Form’s eventually learn that the killers worshipped in a demonic cult. How foreboding?

Annabelle (2014) - The doll looks rather nice when first taken out of the box
The demonic doll looks rather nice when she first comes out of the box

Bumps in the Night

Immediately, the Forms begin experiencing supernatural events. John throws the doll out in hopes that it will help Mia settle down. Unable to overcome the trauma of the home invasions, the couple decide to move out of their house and into an apartment after the birth of their daughter. Inexplicably, John again finds the possessed doll in the moving boxes (yet another opportunity to get divorced and leave). This time Mia stops him from throwing it out again. Unsurprisingly, supernatural occurrences begin almost immediately in their new home. The situation escalates to the point that Mia fears for her and her daughter’s life.

Evelyn and Father Perez

In an interesting departure, this entry does not feature Ed and Lorraine Warren. In a future timeline, The Conjuring details how the Warren’s kept this very same doll locked in a glass case to protect visitors from its evil. Writer Gary Dauberman’s story closes the gap with this film by explaining how the Warren’s come into possession of the doll and suggests the Warren’s presence in the early frames, but they never appear in the film. The Warrens provide an important service to The Conjuring universe and without them, Annabelle lacks a simple plot device for explaining the unexplainable in terms that advance the supernatural goals of the movie. Without the Warrens, Annabelle required another approach to drive the narrative. Her name is Evelyn.

Evelyn lives in the same building as the Form’s. She also owns a bookstore. Together with Mia, they begin to uncover the truth behind the satanic cult that attacked them. The attackers worshipped in The Disciples of Ram and paid tribute to a demon named Malthus. Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any trickery necessary to make that happen. Father Perez presides over the Form’s Catholic church. He informs the Forms that sometimes demons attach themselves to inanimate object in order to provide a channel for achieving their evil goals.

Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any subterfuge necessary to make that happen.

Annabelle (2014) - John and Mia form recollect the night of the attack with a detective
John and Mia form recollect the events that occurred during the attack in their home

Lacking, but Still Scary

Annabelle occasionally lands some pretty scary moments, but in the end it mostly leave the audience wanting for James Wan. While James Wan shows up in the producer list, his absence behind the camera shows. John R. Leonetti’s major triumph comes from a scene that places Mia in the dark basement of the apartment complex. Clearly something sinister hides in the darkness. She runs for the elevator, but the doors of the elevator keep opening to the basement.

She must face her fears and run into the darkness and up the dark stairs. During this pursuit, one of the most frightening scenes occurs when Mia looks down the stairs that she just traversed and sees Malthus, silent, shrouded in darkness and totally still. Malthus pursues her up the stairs until she narrowly escapes into her apartment.

Apart from that, many of the scares come in the form of simple jump scares. These scares often get the intended effect, but they lack the finesse and the impact that James Wan effortlessly achieves. From a critical perspective, the negative response seems to be born of a gap in expectations rather than a total lack of quality. Despite the poor critical reviews, Annabelle did $257M at the box office on a $6.5 budget. If anything, it scored a massive success for New Line Cinema and their fledgling franchise.

New Line Cinema thought enough of the films success to launch its own sub-franchise with two additional films: Annabelle Creation (2017) and Annabelle: Comes Home.

Annabelle (2014) - Mia form runs from Malthus in the dark basement of her apartment
Mia Form runs from Malthus in the dark depths of her apartment

Still, a Decent Film

Unquestionably, Annabelle pales in comparison to its forbearer. Its plot stumbles over the clumsy cult trope. It somewhat implausibly stages much of the action in a multi-tenant apartment complex. I mean really, nobody else sees the lights flickering or hears all of the commotion? Finally, it relies on loosely stitching basic scare techniques together with little artistic connective tissue. Yet, Annabelle and her demon, Malthus, make for an unholy dynamic duo and some of jump scares payout, even if they lack the mastery of James Wan behind the camera.

I still feel that this film possesses merit, but it may be best viewed with a generous time spread between it and The Conjuring. Back to back viewing (like I did), made for a disappointing experience. Yet, with my cloak of objectivity, I tried to isolate my emotions from what I saw on screen. What was left still had enough punch to seem worthwhile. Rather than hunt it down for your collection, it might be better to catch it on one of its endless spins on streaming media.

The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan, Reconfirming Our Love Of Ghosts

4 out of 5 stars

Over decades, the film industry has both embraced and abused the haunted house cliché. It would be all to easy to consider this trope to be overused and played-out, yet, there is something that keeps brining it back to the forefront. This is why an established horror director like James Wan pounced on the opportunity to direct The Conjuring (2013). There is something that keeps pulling us back to this simple horror premise. Haunted houses and demonic possessions exist in the deepest darkest corners of the human psyche.

In good ghost stories, something visceral and unrelenting hides directly in the fabric of our safest place. It threatens children in their beds when we they are most vulnerable. Evil spirits destroy the lives of their subjects, tearing apart relationships and often possessing family members. Most importantly this evils seeps from every crack and crevice of the very same place that the family goes for protection. This omnipresence burrows deep in our fabric and culture and to this day it remains inextricable from our storytelling.

Around the 2000s, the haunted house theme began to suffer a bit of a malaise as the horror-remake-engine began to crank at full force. The full weight of remakes, CGI and the rise of jump-scares threatened to sully the proud history of the haunted horror film. I am looking at you House on Haunted Hill (1999), 13 Ghosts (2001) and Amityville Horror (2005). When James Wan directed the 2013 release, The Conjuring, audiences held some skepticism. Fortunately the trailers had me enthused enough to take the chance. Minimally, The Conjuring screenplay, written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, offers fresh content rather than another Hollywood retread.

The Conjuring (2013) - The introduction of Annabelle
Annabelle scans the room as she quickly becomes the centerpiece of a franchise, and it isn’t even her movie

The Conjuring

The film beings with a sub-plot. Ed and Lorraine Warren, well known Paranormal Investigators, relay the story of a possessed doll named Annabelle to a University class. Annabelle houses an ancient demonic force. Having investigated the case, the Warren’s ultimately take possession of the doll for their occult museum. Even a marginally acute horror radar indicates that we will be seeing more of Annabelle. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the roles of Ed and Lorraine.

The main plot begins in 1971 when the Perron family moves to greener pastures after procuring a remote farmhouse in a bank auction. The house needs some work, but this young family proves ready to take on the challenge. Ron Livingston of Officespace fame plays the role of Roger. Lili Taylor, who would later play Verna Sawyer in Leatherface (2017), portrays Carolyn. Immediately upon moving in, the family begins to encounter strange occurrences. The clocks stop at 3:07 AM every morning and birds kamikaze against the exterior walls of the home. Almost immediately, the family dog inexplicably dies.

3:07 AM? Has anyone ever wondered what ghosts do during daylight savings time?

Quickly, the events escalate in severity. Children are pulled form beds. Pictures fly from the walls. Carolyn beings to see visions and unexplained bruises appear on her arms and body. Fearing for their safety, the Perron’s make a plea to the Warrens to investigate their home. The Warren’s find horrifying answers that ultimately lead the Perron’s into a head-on conflict with demons to survive.

The Conjuring (2013) - Lili Taylor as the haunting victim Carolyn Perron
Lily Taylor is fantastic in her roll as haunting victim Carolyn Perron

The Art of the Haunted House

The Conjuring summary clearly shows that great haunted house films care little about plot. In fact, by simply switching out the names we could be talking The Amityville Horror (1979) or The Haunting in Connecticut (2009). What really drives a good haunted house story is the art of the scare. If the director can artfully suspend the audience by threads of dread and apprehension, they can punctuate those with an terrifying release. Done properly, these ebbs and throes enthrall an audience. This all sounds so simple,  but unfortunately it’s exactly why so many directors fail miserably.

James Wan demonstrates deep understanding of how to combine these techniques. Understanding the push and pull of building and releasing tension makes Wan better than most at his craft. In fact, when he does this properly he creates nearly as much fear simply by building tension and feigning a release . The nuance is subtle, but it is something Andrew Douglas missed in his 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror. Whereas Douglas asked “how MANY jump scares make a haunted house?”, James Wan asked “what about jump scares make a haunted house?”

Without revealing too much, James Wan really goes after the finale by cranking the tension into a crescendo that pits the bowels of hell against a man’s love for his wife and his own desire to protect his children. The climax is genuinely terrifying and Lily Taylor once again stuns with her versatility as both an protective mother and the definition of pure evil. It’s a tale about demonic possession that rivals all but the The Exorcist (1973) and so much more than James Brolin running back to 112 Ocean Avenue to save Harry.

The Conjuring (2013) - Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren

Conjuring Success

Brilliantly, this film seems to have been built with the franchise in mind from the outset. First, New Line Cinema introduces the real-life ghostbusting duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren. In doing so they, New Line established a lineage of supernatural artifacts to explore in the same way that James Wan’s Saw (2004) introduced a never-ending supply of gory murder puzzles for unwitting victims. Anyone with business aptitude knew implicitly that an Annabelle sequel would quickly follow. Congratulations to New Line Cinema for their solid horror franchise architecture. They have a solid business model if you ask me.

Claims that The Conjuring treads old ground do ring true. James Wan did not reinvent the haunted house or the techniques that drive them. In the same way that a master chef doesn’t invent his ingredients, James Wan simply assembled the proper quantities and let is simmers into a wonderful stew of horror. With The Conjuring, James Wan also proves to the world that his skills transcend the narrow bands of torture porn. Although, his first Saw movie really didn’t qualify as torture porn in my book.

Haunted House stories permeate our culture and our folklore. If we are to live with this perpetual drive to not only create, but also consume these stories, we need to them to be good. For I while I genuinely thought that good haunted house stories were slowly dying from poor direction, CGI overload and lazy jump scares. James Wan reinvigorated the haunted house story and demonstrated the art of the scare. I can only hope that his contemporaries take note.