Steaming hot pile of trash!
I hated this movie. HATED it! And I still do after multiple viewings. I like to think of myself as more forgiving of movies that are establishing a universe. That's a really hard thing to do, I get it. But after what this movie did, I was not about to ever give the writers the benefit of the doubt. Not after they played Evelyn like that. Honestly, I didn't want to write a review of this movie. My inner monologue asked, "why bother?" Well, because I allude to it in other posts and pages so it makes sense that I explain why I have such vitriol for this movie. And that acerbic taste can be attributed to just two words: Sacrificial Negro.
I don't normally do spoilers, but that's what we're doing today! Besides, this movie came out in 2014. In this pandemic, if you haven't exhausted all of the shows and movies on streaming services then it must be nice to be a functioning and duly employed adult with things to do. Good for you.
You are duly warned: proceeding past this point will piss you off and spoil an old movie. And if you like heavy sarcasm, this is the post for you. Also, this post is a deep dive and thus longer than normal. So if you're still with me, go grab some tea, snuggle into a comfy chair, and let's begin.
What to Know About Annabelle
Annabelle is the second film set in The Conjuring Universe. Released in 2014, Annabelle tells the story of a haunted doll that the real Ed and Lorraine Warren encountered on their many investigations. Supposedly, this story is based on true events much like the vast majority of entries in the franchise. While its predecessor, The Conjuring, received an overall rating of 7.5/10, this particular movie is ranked as the third-worst rated out of all the franchise movies, garnering only a 5.4/10. And that's being generous.
Before you watch or even continue reading, this title includes: Satanic cults and rituals, race and gender stereotypes and tropes, hallucinations, suicide, homicide, patricide, home invasions, fire, demons, porcelain dolls, Catholic priests, pregnancies, babies, stabbings, falling books, ghost attacks, creepy drawings, falling asleep at the wheel, car/truck accidents, runaway strollers, and more.
Where might you have seen these actors before? Let's start with the main protagonist of the story, wife and mother, Mia Form played by English actor Annabelle Wallis. Most recently, you may have seen Wallis in James Wan's newest horror film, Malignant. Wallis is known for other titles such as The Mummy (2017), Peaky Blinders, and The Loudest Voice. Next up is husband John Form played by American actor Ward Horton. Horton is known for titles such as Pure Genius, The Gilded Age, and Midnighters. Then we have the only reason I'm here, neighbor and book store owner Evelyn played by the legendary American actor Alfre Woodard. You may have seen Woodard in titles such as Star Trek: First Contact, the Apply TV series See, and Luke Cage to mention a few of her roles since the late 70s. And last but not least, we have Father Perez played by the unforgettable American actor Tony Amendola. You may recognize Amendola from his many character acting roles in titles such as Stargate SG1, Once Upon A Time, Continuum, and his many voice acting roles in video games like World of Warcraft, Fallout 4, and Call of Duty.
The Story: A Summary of Sorts
Young couple John and Mia Form are expecting their first child when they get involved in their neighbors' home invasion. The Higgins, their churchgoing and carpooling neighbors, are brutally murdered next door by adopted and estranged daughter Annabelle and her unnamed boyfriend. The boyfriend stabs Mia while John fights him off until the police arrive. The boyfriend is shot dead and Annabelle apparently slits her throat in the room where Mia kept the titular porcelain doll that John gave her earlier that day. After the home invasion, Mia is on bedrest and forced to stay inside for the sake of the baby.
Weird things start to happen in the house around the doll (e.g., things turning on by themselves, the doll moving) that give Mia and John pause. So they decide to throw out the doll. John has to go away for a convention, so now Mia is all alone. While minding her business and sewing, an unseen entity starts a fire that causes Mia to try to escape. However, Mia falls down face-forward and is pulled backward by the entity. She is then saved by some passersby who see the smoke and is taken to the hospital.
John arrives at the hospital to meet their new daughter Leah and the happy family then moves to Pasadena for John's new placement at a hospital nearby. At the new apartment, that same doll somehow makes its way back into the Form's belongings and they just decide to keep it. Later while exploring the new neighborhood, Mia and Leah meet neighbor and bookstore owner Evelyn. More strange things continue to happen (e.g., ominous child drawings, getting trapped in the basement, seeing demons... you know, the norm). Mia tries to tell John that something's wrong, but he doesn't want to hear it and calls Father Perez instead to talk some sense into Mia. Clearly, that doesn't help. So instead, Mia befriends Evelyn and gathers information on the demon terrorizing her.
As things get worse, Mia is locked out of the room that Leah is in by whatever entity is tormenting her. As she fears for Leah's safety amongst falling textbooks, Mia breaks down the door and saves her child. Out of the corner of her eye, Mia spies a certain slowly levitating porcelain doll (Annabelle) that is being held aloft by a demon obscurred by shadows. To calm Mia who is rightfully freaking out, John summons Father Perez who listens more intently this time to Mia's claims. He takes the doll back with him to his church where he is attacked and seriously injured by the ghost of Annabelle Higgins, who then takes back the doll.
After a wonderful day out shopping with Evelyn and some bonding over motherhood and survivor's guilt/trauma, Mia and Leah are attacked by the demon (who pushes Evelyn outside the apartment), the ghost of Annabelle Higgins, and the demonic porcelain doll Annabelle. Meanwhile, John treats Father Perez at his hospital where he finally learns that Mia and Leah are in danger and makes his way home. Back at the apartment, Leah is hidden by the ghostly trio from Mia who goes crazy trying to get her back. After messages on the ceiling convey that the trio want Mia to sacrifice Leah's blood and soul to the demon, Mia decides to pick up the doll and attempt to sacrifice herself instead of Leah. John and Evelyn make their way to Mia and pull her away from the open window she was about to jump out of. While John is trying to calm down a rightfully hysterical Mia, Evelyn takes the doll and in an attempt to make sense of surviving a car crash when her own daughter Ruby did not, she sacrifices herself instead.
Leah is found moments after Evelyn dies and the young Form family is whole again. 6 months later, they're back attending Mass with a recouperated Father Perez with this whole mess behind them. The end. Happily ever after. Good thing that random Black lady sacrificed herself for you. Fin.
The Real Hero of the Story
Evelyn and her unreasonable sacrifice saved the day. But why was that even an option? In the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, UCLA Professor Tananarive Due defined the term (and trope) Sacrificial Negro. Put simply, "the Sacrificial Negro exists only to save a white character.” And the keyword is in the name, sacrifice. A Sacrificial Negro is likely to give up their lives in service of or in place of a white character and their friends or family. That is what Evelyn was, a sacrifice to save Mia and Leah. The writers justified Evelyn's death because she was dealing with survivor's guilt and depression, and had previously tried to take her own life. We learn that Evelyn fell asleep at the wheel one night and her daughter Ruby died as a result. Missing her own daughter caused Evelyn to cut her wrists, only to be stopped by the voice of Ruby telling her she still has a purpose. At the end of the movie, Evelyn then foolishly thinks that sacrificing herself to save Leah, a stranger's child, is what Ruby had in mind when she said her mother still had a purpose.
In 2014, who greenlit this? Why was this an option? It was lazy writing to introduce Annebelle and her malevolence into The Conjuring Universe this way. Even if the story was loosely based off of real events, the sacrifice of a random woman who had nothing to do with this family or their trauma should not have been the resolution. The writers chose the easy way out, which was to play on racial stereotypes and tropes to conclude a story that would open the flood gates for two additional movies. And what's more, the writers found a way to jam pack three tropes into one character: take the Sacrificial Negro, add the Magical Negro (aka the Wise Negro) and a Mammie, and you've got Evelyn.
Let's talk about the Magical Negro for a moment. Mia goes into Evelyn's bookstore looking for answers about what's happening to her. With very little probing, Mia tells Evelyn she thinks that she's being haunted. Evelyn leads Mia to Aisle 4 as if it were the most natural thing in the world and pulls book after book to help her solve this riddle. Evelyn invites Mia into her home to give her some more sage advice and wisdom, and to let her know that it's not a haunting, but a demonic possession. In this regard, Evelyn acts as the Magical Negro, imparting spiritual knowledge that sheds light on what's really going on in Mia's life. Not Father Perez, her spiritual leader, but her Black neighbor. Another little interesting tidbit is that Magical Negroes are usually dressed in white. What's Evelyn wearing the night she dies? Why a white dress, of course.
And we should all know what a Mammie is. They are twisted representations of when enslaved Black women were forced to raise white children. The portrayal of Mammies is widespread in contemporary media and used to soften the reality of enslavement in order to make it seem like we liked Massah and his kids, thus turning slavery into a palatable evil. Mammies are usually older women who exhibit motherlike qualities toward white people of all ages. Evelyn mentioned that Mia is around Ruby's age, and even tells John that when she first met Mia and Leah that she felt like she knew them for her whole life. Evelyn then takes it upon herself to give and buy Leah books and clothes; to help Mia quiet Leah down when she starts crying the only way a Mammie can, with song and love; to help watch Leah; and then finally makes the ultimate sacrifice for Mia and Leah.
After Evelyn falls, Mia mourns for Evelyn for all of 3 seconds before she hears Leah's cry. All of a sudden, the Form family isn't so distraught and sad. They're happy again, just like that. Mia and Leah are together again and all is right with the world.
An Honorable Mention in the Oppression Olympics
I would also like to extend the concept of the Sacrificial Negro to Father Perez. Yes, I understand that he didn't die; and yes, I understand that he's not Black. But we all know that what happens to one marginalized group in regards to representation is likely to happen to others. So here's why: Father Perez made a house call to Mia and John's new apartment in the city. He met with them and listened to Mia's concerns. Not only did he not dismiss her like John did, but he took that demon doll back with him to his church. It wasn't until Father Perez was attacked by unseen forces that John finally believed his wife. It took Father Perez being yeeted from the entrance of the church to show John that Mia wasn't lying or crazy, but instead, a distraught woman looking for understanding from her husband who claims to believe her. It took Father Perez being seriously injured before it even occurred to John that there was a problem. Father Perez was fodder for John's inability to care about how Mia felt and acts as the final catalyst springing him into action at long last.
A Note About Gender
In fact, after the home invasion, John serves no real purpose other than to juxtapose Mia's supposed emotional instability after the murder-suicide and attempted Satanic rituals–stressful events mind you. It's the same thing, every single time with this type of movie. John is the rational breadwinner, while Mia is the frantic and emotional stay-at-home mom. The man is the skeptic, the woman is the believer. The man is the protector, the woman needs protecting. The man can leave the house and physically escape from reliving the trauma of a home invasion, the woman cannot. The man has the luxury of not believing or ignoring signs that something is wrong, and the woman is tormented on an almost daily basis. The man doesn't have to concern himself with childrearing, yet that's the sole purpose of the woman.
I half expected John to contemplate whether or not Mia is hysterical and should be sent to a mental health facility, which he kinda does if you think about it. Instead of a therapist or a psychologist, he calls in Father Perez, which, despite his good intentions and solid advice, is another man telling Mia that she's crazy and to move on. But don't worry, we know that he quickly changed his tune.
Aside from the racist tropes, my vitriol toward this movie is a result of how the writing does a disservice to both main characters. John is first billed in the cast and is barely in the movie. He merely exists with no real purpose after 30 minutes into the film. Had John died protecting Mia and unborn Leah from Annabelle Higgins and unnamed boyfriend, the movie would have proceeded exactly as is without much deviation:
- Mia would have moved from the first house (maybe a little sooner);
- She probably would have still burned the house down and pricked her finger sewing as well;
- Annabelle the doll still would not have been thrown out, or rather found a way back inside;
- Mia would have sought help with her demon doll problem from anyone who would listen; and
- Anyone and everyone would have come rushing to help, offering themselves up to save poor Mia and Leah. It just happened to be Evelyn who won that particular lottery.
Mia was in effect by herself for the remainder of the movie until she meets Evelyn, someone who would sacrifice herself in a misguided attempt to give her life meaning by saving another woman's child. Coming full circle, Evelyn's sacrifice means that her life had no meaning after her daughter died (another gender stereotype) and that dying for a traumatized white woman gave her back her purpose. How maddening it must be to realize that you died so that your mother could die for a stranger. Let's accept for the moment that Evelyn's daughter Ruby sent her mother a message from the dead, telling her that she was not done living. Do you think Ruby meant for her mother to sacrifice herself for Mia, John, and Leah? Or for her to enjoy being a Black pioneer in a town that prided itself on its exclusivity and whiteness? Or to not let the guilt of surviving the accident rob her of a life that she still has yet to live? I'd take options 2 or 3 over 1 any day. The problem is that the writers decided that, and now this is bleak, if Evelyn couldn't finish the deed for her daughter Ruby, she'd do it for Mia.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
You know the story, you know the word of the day. So here's what worked, what didn't work, and what made no sense. After all, I did give them 1 coffin. It couldn't all be trash, could it?
Not much worked. And though I am definitely biased, I will concede one thing and one thing only. I thought the writers genuinely did a good job evoking sincere feelings of anxiety and dread when it looked like heavy textbooks would fall on Leah and then again later when the demonic trio made Mia think she had thrown her daughter across the room instead of the doll that she had originally picked up. I could see those instances as being genuinely terrifying, or at least nerve-wracking, for a parent or someone with small children in their lives. Or, just any empathetic person in general.
What Didn't Work
There's so much, but let's focus on two examples: the lazy writing and accessibility of Satanic rituals. Let's look at these two issues in tandem. Not that I've gone looking, because I certainly have not, but one would think that finding any reputable texts on Satanic rituals would be hard to come by. Well in this movie, they're just lying around as if by design. The first day that Mia walks by the bookstore, we see a book on the occult in the window of this storefront property on a prominent and busy-looking street, during the 60s. Even today, or rather before Amazon, it is/was rare to find occult books in any storefront window unless it was a novelty shop or it was a back alley store that you had to know about in order to find. And then when Mia goes looking inside for more books, she's just able to find what she needs. The books available have the answers. There's no challenge, no obstacles, and certainly no difficulty in finding books that outline Satanic rituals. Research takes time in the real world, but not for Mia.
Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but it was entirely too easy for Mia to come by the knowledge that she needed in order to figure out the issue at hand. I mean how often is it that you'll find a book that tells you exactly how to summon a demon? Then when the books that Mia selected only had but so much information, the Magical Negro Evelyn filled in the blanks because of course she knew the inner workings of the occult. Everything was handed to Mia. She didn't have to work for it, it was just there waiting for her to happen upon or be given by someone else (either by Det. Clarkin or Evelyn). The writers didn't want any stumbling blocks to get in the way of their objective. They wanted an easy story with an acceptable win, and that's what they got.
What Made No Sense
There are two main issues: loose ends and breaking established world rules. Loose ends irk my nerves. To that end, I'd like to discuss the two children, Robert and Nancy, drawing on the stairs in the hallway of Mia and John's new apartment building. So Mia is on her way outside, doing new mom stuff, when she stumbles across the two siblings sitting in the stairwell blocking the way. She tries to make nice and introduce herself, but Robert tells Nancy not to talk to strangers. Makes sense. But what doesn't make sense is (1) Robert's attitude and (2) when Mia returns to find sequential drawings of her losing control of Leah's stroller and Leah getting hit by a truck.
Personally, I would have been freaked out too. Maybe even would have gone to speak to their parents like Mia wanted. But what happens? Mia tells John, he brushes her off like normal, and that's... it. It doesn't ever come up again and no parents are called. We never see, hear, or speak of Robert and Nancy ever again. A mystery that will remain unsolved for the ages: what happened to the Palmeri Apartments prophetic child artists? Jokes and loose ends aside, even when Leah's stroller does roll into the street and is smashed to bits by a garbage truck, Mia doesn't mention it to John and I don't blame her. He doesn't ever seem to believe her, which is likely why she feels more comfortable not sharing the refutable details about being attacked by a demon she saw in the basement.
In addition to loose ends, I find stories that break their own rules to be problematic. When Mia and Evelyn do "research" on what entity is likely terrorizing the Form family, they come across several books that outline Satanic rituals and what is needed to summon and make corporeal a demon. Many times throughout the movie it is mentioned that the blood and souls of innocents are the ingredients of choice for such a ritual. And for those ingredients to be viable, they have to be given willingly, with consent. In those same books from before, there are images of babies in the hands of demons and then outright instructions written on the ceiling in the climatic window scene. So if we follow their logic, it seems like the perfect ingredient is Leah with permission from Mia.
The demon, the ghost of Annabelle Higgins (formerly Janice–for a later post), and the possessed doll Annabelle have all been harassing Mia in order to drive her to make an unthinkable decision, sacrificing her child. We know from the beginning of the movie, that Mia would rather die than let anything harm Leah. Still on that logic train, I pose the question: why would Evelyn sacrificing herself make the demon stop pursuing Leah? Technically, Evelyn's a rando. The demon was never after her and likely would not have taken her soul or blood. In quite a number of religious communities, babies and children are seen as truly innocent, not adults who have sinned countless times. So why would Evelyn's death stop the torment and harassment from the demon? Need I say it? Racism and lazy writing, that's why. The Sacrificial Negro, the Magical Negro, and especially the Mammie are usually seen as innocent characters who are pure of heart. The movie needed an ending and Evelyn gave them an easy one.
Special Mentions in Our Segment "What Made No Sense"
- After John gives Mia the doll, he tells her that they're going to be short on rent for a couple of months to pay for it. The audacity... I can't even begin to describe the fiscal irresponsibility of that choice.
- Mia directly asks the cop in charge of their case, Det. Clarkin, if the cult that Annabelle Higgins and boyfriend were a part of was Satanic. Clarkin looks to John for permission to answer the question. What in the gender norms bullshit is that? I'd like to believe that life wasn't that patronizing for women in the 60s.
- How likely is it that Evelyn, a Black woman living alone in the early 60s, would own a storefront property and be a resident of an upscale apartment building next door in Pasadena, CA--a place known for their history as a Sundown Town? It's not impossible, just highly unlikely, given (you know) racism.
- Mia is in the storeroom in the basement and hears a lone baby loudly wailing, yet doesn't run or even walk briskly to investigate. Hmm?
- Mia called on Det. Clarkin to ask him more questions and he came to her new apartment willingly during work hours. We don't see her call, but we can infer that she didn't think it was inappropriate to make that request and he didn't think it inappropriate to acquiesce.
- John waits until Father Perez tells him that Annabelle is evil and that a demon is stalking his family before he decides to actually believe his wife.
Final Thoughts (TLDR)
Finally, my review–I'm giving Annabelle 1 out of 5 coffins! Here's why:
- Lazy Writing: It allowed a random, severely depressed Black woman entrepreneur to sacrifice herself for complete strangers she just met. It removed the challenge of figuring out who or what was stalking Mia and her family. And it allowed the audience to think that killing yourself, scribing a Satanic symbol in blood on the wall, and then bleeding on a doll was enough to establish a possession.
- Problematic Race and Gender Tropes and Stereotypes: With Mia and John locked into rigid gender roles and supernatural horror film stereotypes, and Evelyn and Father Perez used as fodder to ensure the happy ending of the Form family, this movie didn't try hard enough to create surviving characters that I cared about.
- Loose Ends: Loose ends irk my nerves because lazy writing will allow you to introduce entire characters and subplots without having to double back and explain why they're in the movie or what purpose they serve. They leave the audience with unanswered questions and holes to exploit for more money from paying audience members in sequels (if they're lucky, which The Conjuring Universe certainly is).
- Accessible Satanic Rituals: It was too easy to find research materials and credible subject matter experts on the occult. Everything was just handed to Mia on a silver platter and it took the fun out of solving the main mystery of the movie, who is stalking the Form family? So the solution becomes: just find someone to die in your stead and your family can live demon-free too!
- Horror for Parents and People Who Care About Others: As the only bright spot on this list, the fear of harm coming to a child was genuine and I actually liked how the writers conveyed that emotion through the demon's deception and trickery.
After this long-winded deep dive into the travesty that was Annabelle, all I can say is this: the overall plot was not the issue. I took issue with how the writers solved the main problem of the story and why a woman who needed therapy and support ended up dying. The movie felt like a cop out and an insult at the same time. I was drawn to Evelyn but could not identify at all with her or her choices. She existed only to solve a problem. Another tragedy is that the movie had real potential that was squandered by cheap jump scares, poor decision-making (which, yes, is not exclusive to this film), and a money grab looking to capitalize on the success of Annabelle's predecessor, The Conjuring (which I did like by the way).
So please remember this folks, at the end of the day, these are my opinions. If I was wrong about any of the details of the movie or term definitions, please let me know in the comments. Also, I'd like to know if you agree with my analysis but would love (even more) to know if you disagree and why. So if you can stomach the nonsense, go and experience this title for yourself. Be your own judge.
'Til next time!