Thoughts On: Annabelle: Creation (2017)
A group of displaced orphans move into a household haunted by tragedy.
Quite inadvertently, I’ve seen every single one of the Conjuring Universe films. Whilst I don’t think this series is particularly good or bad, much like the Paranormal Activity films, they just seem to find themselves in front of me. The weakest Conjuring film, in my view, was certainly Annabelle as it was so forgettable. So, going into this movie, I wasn’t expecting much at all. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by a well-constructed and intelligent picture. There are major downfalls in this film’s design however. We will not get into the most significant of these, but, I will say that what initially brings this movie down is its bland characters – not one of them are particularly interesting or emotionally engaging. This is something that I believe most people will pick up on, and so will be the biggest hurdle to enjoying this narrative. That said, the scares, whilst predictable and heavily reliant on the sound design alone, mostly work to a satisfactory degree it seems – my girlfriend jumped quite a bit. What’s more, the direction is pretty flawless. Sandberg, quite like Wan with the first Conjuring, uses his camera in the way that seemingly all horror movie directors would love to if they had a big enough budget; he often has us float through, above and across the sets, a ghost like Kubrick’s camera in The Shining, but with a distinguished modern aesthetic. However, this can draw too much attention to itself at times as the camera movement is often unmotivated, yet not impressive enough to really justify itself. But, this isn’t overwhelmingly distracting and, especially by the mid-point, this film ultimately finds its footing and works pretty well.
The other strengths of Annabelle concern its subtext – and this is the element that really made this movie worthwhile for me. To delve into this, be warned, because we will be using…
With this second Annabelle film, Dauberman (writer) constructs a pretty expressive narrative about sisterhood, femininity and the dynamics of a female social group. He does this with the use of the Annabelle doll and the generationally diverse cast of women. A question we must ask to understand how this group functions is: why are toy dolls anything from lovable to pleasant to weird to creepy to horrifying?
As many people may already know, there is a theory that places particularly creepy human representatives (like dolls and robots) into an “uncanny valley”.
This is a very interesting tool with which you can understand horror movies, but sticking with Annabelle, it’s clear that the doll, because it is constructed so well, but not well enough, fits quite snugly into the uncanny valley. However, realism isn’t the only determining factor of its creepiness in my view – and this film attempts to emphasise this. There is an emotional connection that people, girls especially, can develop with their dolls (baby dolls in particularly). This is because, once they hit a certain age of maturity, girls’ biological functions as well as surrounding social mechanisms motivate them towards empathy, care and compassion for young humans. When this emotional symbol of emotional attachment – the toy doll – is pushed down the uncanny valley, the after-effects are pretty poignant – hence a plethora of Chucky-like movies that have been made over time. Dauberman seems to be somewhat conscious of this concept and so uses the symbol of Annabelle to test his group of females with age-old tropes of horror.
As has been made fun of time and time again with spoof movies that make use of virgin teens alone surviving the killer/monster of a given movie, horror is classically pretty puritanical in its often unforgiving application of religious themes. There are then heavy motifs throughout the horror genre of women being punished, tested and used as cautionary tales of sin. Whilst many will find this distasteful, I believe that this can have a significant place in a horror film if used well. Relating this to the film at hand, not only does Dauberman punish his corrupted female characters in Annabelle: Creation, but he does so for the sake of building his story.
So, to begin the dissection, there are three females in this story that are really put on trial. They are the mother, who lost her daughter and, with her husband, used satanic forces to bring her spirit to life again; one of the oldest orphans, Nancy, who pushes around and bullies (passive-aggressively) her younger house mates; and, finally, one of our main protagonists, Janice, who has broken her leg and fears being treated differently by her friends because of the injury. It is the devil that resides within Annabelle’s (the dead daughter’s) doll that is used to punish all of these women. Because they express no faith – as is made clear by Sister Charlotte – these three figures are then susceptible to the whims, and in turn the punishment, of the devil. To provide a secular explanation, because these figures hold no concept of a higher, transcendent (of basic understanding) and archetypal good that they remain loyal to, they leave in themselves a sympathy towards the bad – which is a slippery path towards self-destruction. Further contextualising this, however, is the use of a feminine symbol: the Annabelle doll. This uncannily horrifying doll is then representative of these women coming into conflict with, or neglecting, their female values.
We see this paradigm quite clearly with the parents of the dead Annabelle. They chose not to accept the death of their little girl and instead fixate on the impossible. By neglecting a trust in a higher ideal of goodness, they, with vanity, turn away from a positive perspective to wallow in their sorrows by bringing their daughter ‘back to life’. The mistake that this is, is made clear by the fact that the devil (ultimate darkness) inhabits their daughter and later takes the mother’s eye – her perspective – a wound she masks with a portion of a doll’s face (which is not too different from what she does by remembering her daughter through her doll). When the parents attempt to provide penance – which is reversing their previous negative actions by trying to move past their daughter’s death and by opening their home to a group of orphans – they come into conflict with themselves. We see this through the sinister and uninviting atmosphere captured by the ‘welcome’ the girls receive; the parents are struggling to move on – the evil, possessed doll still lingers in their home – and this eventually kills them.
It is Janice who exploits this weakness in the couple by going into Annabelle’s room. She knows that this is socially wrong (a sin) and so she is possessed – possibly by the parent’s own negative attachment to their dead daughter. However, this is something that is never expressed too clearly, which could have easily been done through the parents being put in a trance of sorts by the possessed Janice, which in turn indicates that Dauberman doesn’t have a full grip on his subtext. Nonetheless, Janice’s punishment through the doll seems to be two-fold. Not only is she punished for committing a sin, but she also seems to act with too much pride; like the parents, she doesn’t want to accept help in her weakened state, so instead isolates herself. Again, this idea isn’t expressed very well as Janice’s actions around this element of story are portrayed as rational, not irrational. But, despite this weak element of writing, it is clear that Janice’s conflict concerns obeying authority and establishing/maintaining sisterhood. By failing in both of these regards (ignoring her elders and losing her friend) she is eventually consumed by the doll.
Concerning the hostile atmosphere in the house that the orphaned girls move into, we come to the bully, Nancy. She, much like the scarecrow from which the devil that kills her rises from, puts up a malevolent facade as a form of defence. Nancy is not scaring birds away from crops, however. She is, probably out of self-defence, attacking the younger girls – and often as to project her own ‘maturity’. An example of this would be her mistreating Janice’s friend, sending her off to play a game of hide-and-seek which she never engages in, only so that she could ‘talk about boys’. This minor act of obnoxiousness becomes ever more pertinent when she constantly scares the other girls into mistrusting the new house in which they live. As mentioned, this contributes to the already tense atmosphere and so puts further pressure on the still-mourning parents.
As could be expected, this explodes with all of these characters being seriously hurt or killed, but the most compassionate, naive and innocent surviving the coming of the devil. What this transforms this narrative into is a tragic parable about a predominantly female social group failing to unite under an symbolic idea of creation. Creation is an attribute linked heavily to women, after all, we all have mothers without which we couldn’t exist. This idea is expressed through these female figures, which have almost all lost either mothers or children, all coming into conflict through the loss of a child as well as biological maturity. This may stem from the fact that they’ve all forgotten how to properly play with dolls. Considering this idea metaphorically, what I mean to suggest here is that the social mechanisms (like a toy doll) that motivate women to be highly sociable, compassionate and caring – something that would be referred to as archetypal femininity – have been put under much pressure with seemingly irreconcilable after-effects. Again, this idea could have been better expressed with other dolls playing larger parts in this narrative – maybe the older girls bully the younger ones by stealing and throwing away their dolls whilst calling them weird or childish. However, the fact that so much of this clear subtextual conflict revolves around the doll already speaks volumes about each of these characters and their function in this narrative.
To come towards a conclusion, what Annabelle: Creation is quite clearly about puts emphasis on Creation. This is a movie about girls and women coming into conflict with their own femininity and in turn an idea of sisterhood. What this will then make clear is the abstract ending. Why does Janice grow up calling herself Annabelle? It seems that the girls throwing away the doll in the end was not a good thing; they never truly embraced their inner conflicts despite confronting them. What that would suggest is that maybe Janice was exiled from this group and was sent to another orphanage where she grew up with inner demons and insurmountable psychological torment. This was around the important age of 12 – which is about the point at which puberty will start for most young people. For the fact that all of these conflicts arise in the house following a 12 year period after Annabelle dies further implies that this movie is heavily focused on creation, loss and growth as attached to females coming under much duress. Interestingly, 12 years after Janice-turned-Annabelle is adopted, she has a nightmare about killing her parents as her boyfriend sleeps next to her. Again, the mid-20s are another tuning point in people’s lives as this is where they may begin to think about starting a family – a significant point of maturation at which conflict can, again, arise, leaving the final scene of this narrative the last beat if a parabolic tragedy concerning women who can create life and must learn how to sustain it (a child; a doll) through their social practices. All of these conflicts, as said, concern sisterhood and an idea of these women’s sense of feminine self. The fact that “creation” is then the abstract focus of this narrative through the doll then adds a very strong layer of intelligence to this story. The girls in this story all suffer because they do not come together and also show little understanding of, and sympathy for, the highest feminine virtues. This is done through disrespecting Annabelle’s mother and one another which, all too soon, devolves into chaos.
With all of that said, it should be recognised that, whilst this is a very intelligent script, Dauberman doesn’t demonstrate a full control of this subtext and so leaves this story lacking in certain respects. Ultimately, I would then say that Annabelle: Creation is an above-average horror film with quite a few faults. But, as said at the top of this post, the most significant of these issues haven’t been brought into the light. We will then do this in another post on pacing and structure. But, for now I’ll leave you with this question: What do you think of Annabelle: Creation and all we’ve covered today?
Tangled – Classical Essence?
Annabelle: Creation – Structure & Pacing: The Real Tension
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