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Creepy “Annabelle” Gets Demonic Possession Right



David Ives - published on 10/03/14

Movie stays mostly true to Catholic teaching

If the makers of “Annabelle” accomplished nothing else, they at least answered the one nagging question raised by the movie’s previews; why would anyone in their right mind ever purchase such a hideously evil looking doll in the first place?

The answer is, of course, because Annabelle is valuable. We learn as much after young resident-in-training, John Form, (Ward Horton) brings the titular doll home as a surprise present for his pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis). Much to the actress’s credit (and the audience’s amusement), it has to be said that she does an excellent job of appearing excited upon opening the package and revealing Annabelle’s über-creepy visage. The thought of anyone being so ecstatic over receiving something so obviously crafted by Satan stretches credulity, but Wallis pulls it off.

The reason for Mia’s bizarre display of joy is quickly explained, however, as the mother-to-be turns and places Annabelle on a shelf with two or three other equally hideously evil-looking dolls. Annabelle, it turns out, is one of a set of highly sought-after collector’s pieces. Freakish, yes, but really just another pricey porcelain plaything to be put proudly on display.

*Spoiler Alert* That all changes, though, when members of a Manson Family-style Satanic cult break into the Forms’ home and attempt to sacrifice the couple. The police arrive in time to stop the proceedings, but not before one of the cultists commits suicide while cradling the doll in her lap. From that moment on, Mia’s prized possession is a different dolly.

Those who have seen “The Conjuring” know that Annabelle is bad news. As explained in that movie, the doll came to the attention of real life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren after the toy, or—to be more precise—the malevolent spirit attached to the toy, terrorized a pair of young nurses at the dawn of the 1970s. After investigating the women’s claims, the Warrens engaged a priest to perform an exorcism on the doll, and subsequently locked it in a glass case, where it resides to this day. All of the participants in the events surrounding Annabelle claim them to be a true story.

The movie “Annabelle” makes no such assertion. Rather, it proposes a completely fictionalized account of how the dreadful doll might have become a conduit for the demon before it ever came into the nurses’ possession. In other words, “Annabelle” is just another made-up horror movie. But it’s a mostly successful one.

That’s good news for John R. Leonetti, who hasn’t really earned much acclaim as a director for his work on such movies as “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” and “The Butterfly Effect 2.” Now, after spending the last half-decade as James Wan’s cinematographer on films like “The Conjuring” and the “Insidious” franchise, it seems he’s picked up a few tricks and may have his first big hit on his hands.

Oh sure, there are the inevitable jump scares and musical stabs in “Annabelle.” But as Wan does in his films, Leonetti mostly relies less on gore and more on slow pans and half-glimpsed figures in the dark to give viewers the creeps. The camera stops to linger on Annabelle’s eyes. People reach out oh-so-slowly to touch something suspicious. Sounds come from shadowed corners. It’s all familiar techniques to those who have watched Wan’s movies, but it’s still effective. Hey, if it ain’t broke…

Gary Dauberman’s screenplay, on the other hand, is something of a weak link in the film. Only Wallis and Alfre Woodard as the concerned bookshop owner are given anything substantive to do with their roles. More egregious are all of the dangling plot threads and disappearing characters that litter the movie. (What exactly was the deal with those kids on the stairs anyway?) Still, this is Dauberman’s first big screen assignment after writing movies like “Swamp Devil” and “Bloodmonkey” for the SyFy channel, so it’s understandable that he’s still got a few kinks to work out. Fortunately, this is a horror movie, so its general lack of logic isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.

What is most shocking is that the script gets right, at least about 90 percent of the time, all of the Catholic stuff being tossed around. As regular attendees of Mass, once things with Annabelle start to get out of control, John and Mia immediately head to their priest, Father Perez (Hey it’s that guy, Tony Amendola!) for help. And he gives it to them, not only by aiding the Forms against the demon, but by counseling them on how to keep their marriage strong through the ordeal. In other words, the Catholics in “Annabelle” act like actual Catholics.

Even more shocking is the fact that up until the last ten minutes or so, the movie manages to stay pretty true to Church teachings on demons. You see, Annabelle herself, as hideously evil looking as she is, is just a thing. The doll itself is not the problem.The spirit hanging around the doll is.

The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “according to Catholic belief, demons or fallen angels retain their natural power, as intelligent beings, of acting on the material universe, and using material objects and directing material forces for their own wicked ends… Hence places and things as well as persons are naturally liable to diabolical infestation, within limits permitted by God.”

In the film, Father Perez goes out of his way to get this point across to the beleaguered couple. As Christians, we are not at war with things. Along with our own sinful natures, we are in spiritual battle with intelligent evil forces aligned against us. Our main weapon of defense is prayer, of which exorcism is just a highly ritualistic form. Even though things get a little theologically questionable right at the end, it’s nice to see a Hollywood movie get so much right.

Well, nice for people like me anyway. It probably won’t receive as warm a reception from folks like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who found “the relentless focus of ‘The Conjuring’ on married life, Christian baptism, and the old-school Latinate mumbo-jumbo of the Catholic Church as essential elements in resisting evil” too much to stomach. Such critics will find no comfort in “Annabelle,” as it contains much the same material. I’m not saying “Annabelle” is perfect, far from it. But it’s got its heart in the right place and it delivers enough jolts to make it a fine start to the Halloween season.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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