Annabelle Comes Home is the seventh film in the Conjuring series of horror films. It’s the first I’ve seen, but here under the dark reign of TK’s review assignments, that’s seen as a feature not a bug. Some might say he spread around all of the franchise to different reviewers out of mercy, but it’s really because his particular fetish is spreading pain as widely as it can still hold out a coat. He really should be medicated.
Annabelle is a really ugly doll. She’s definitely evil. We’re told that by no less than three different people in the prologue even before a priest does the Holy Water rain dance around her. He’s a discount priest because he doesn’t even do it in Latin, which everyone knows is bare minimum for demonic containment. Yes, all that’s insufficient to communicate her evil. They also have to give us a Star Wars style text crawl to inform us that no, seriously, totally, this doll is like really evil.
“Shouldn’t we destroy the doll?” A very bright pupil asks in the prologue.
“Ha! MORON.” Says Patrick Wilson, who is sort of channeling Will Arnett’s Gob the few scenes he’s in. “That would make the problem SO MUCH WORSE.”
“Right? IDIOTS.” Says Vera Farminga, who it is quickly established sees dead people, though none of them are Bruce Willis.
I kind of feel for them. Goddamned experts putting their lives on the line for ingrates whose checks always bounce, and these peasants have the sheer unmitigated gall to question their methods? As the esteemed Dr. Venkman once observed “we can just put it right back in there.” The distrust of expertise in this country has become an epidemic, what with the tearing down of education and the elevation of essential oils and anti-vaccination conspiracies. It’s a f**king travesty.
Anyway, the demon doctors take the evil doll back to their house and stick it in a glass case in a room full of other evil objects a couple doors down from their daughter’s room. Sounds smart, they are the experts after all.
Then a subtitle says we jump some time and the demon doctors have to go on an overnight trip, leaving their spooky daughter (who also sees dead people because she got the spooky gene from her mom) with the chipper local high school babysitter.
GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.
If you guessed that we’d have an inexplicable hour of character development before anything supernatural happens, you’d get a gold star. I’m kind of conflicted here because the movie is willing to take the time to really build out the characters and let them breathe as people. And normally that’s my jam. These are well acted, well developed, and fully featured characters. You genuinely like and root for them. When done right in horror, this feels like a tragic slow burn of mounting anxiety for the characters that then pays off when the darkness arrives. But the horror half of the movie is so lame that all the craft that went into creating three-dimensional characters serves to emphasize just how two-dimensional the horror ends up being.
The actual horror is essentially an hour of characters walking slowly through the dark while breathing heavily. It’s basically a badly lit extremely low impact cardio exercise video. Half the bad lighting is just because the movie is set in the seventies and apparently every room was only allotted a single 25-watt bulb in order to fight the commies.
The movie really tries to convince us that scary things are happening by having the characters scream a lot, but mostly they’re just screaming at stuff like doors closing with no one there or radios turning on by themselves or even the light switches ceasing to work. But I feel most of the haunting can be chalked up to bad wiring, to be honest. Building codes in the seventies really left something to be desired.
There’s never any real sense of what the evil wants or what the rules are on its power. Most of what it does is illusory, or knocking stuff over to startle a character, punctuated by the occasional invisible force grabbing someone briefly. Annabelle’s only real power seems to be the jump scare.
And then there’s a werewolf outside. F**k if I know what that’s all about, but it’s a perfect case in point for the inconsistencies. Where does it come from and how does it have anything to do with the spirits that are drawn to Annabelle? Apparently, it’s the ghost of a hell hound maybe? At one point it can rip apart a car with its claws, and the next moment it disintegrates into mist when it’s hit with a guitar.
Look, supernatural horror doesn’t have to make sense, else it’d be science not magic. But suspension of disbelief doesn’t survive when the writing is premised on whatever is convenient for the next thirty seconds of plot.
There’s also the problem of the plot’s resolution. Stories have power because they say that things happen for a reason. The good guys win because they’re brave, because they’re smart, because they make the moral choice at the end. Some stories work because they negate this, because they make the very point that there is no rationale at all. But those stories only work in their nihilism because they consciously push against our desire for narrative closure.
Bad stories don’t have anything under the surface layer, don’t have any metaphor that makes the victory resonate. That’s what makes Annabelle Comes Home so disappointing, because normally where horror movies fail is in building up the characters necessary so that there can be a deeper layer. This movie took the time to do all that, painstakingly establishing characters with motivation and depth. And then it just ignores all that to go through the motions of jump scares at the end.
It’s not disappointing that the solution to their haunting is just picking up the stupid doll and putting it back in its box. It’s disappointing that the solution doesn’t mean anything to the characters. The rule follower isn’t compelled to break rules, the girl who blames herself for her father’s death isn’t forced to accept she isn’t responsible, the cursed child doesn’t accept that her power is also a gift. Characters who don’t make choices, who don’t evolve over the course of a story, are just background props. They might as well just be dolls in glass cases.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Header Image Source: New Line Cinema