Director: John R. Leonetti
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
I don't know at what point I'll stop being excited to review sequels/spin-offs to movies that I reviewed in their first run, but that day is not today. Much like with the Purge franchise, it's exciting to have been around as an online critic long enough to cover the beginnings of an entirely new series of movies. That happy trend continues with Annabelle, the dashed-together prequel that is placating us during the time it takes to (hopefully) make sure The Conjuring 2: Electric Boogaloo is as kickass as possible.
In the meantime, we have Annabelle, a feature film based on what was essentially a sideshow gag in the hellstorm of horrors that was The Conjuring. And why not? People seemed to respond to the doll, and enough horror movies have seeped into the public consciousness that just about everyone knows that dolls are untrustworthy. It's like taking candy from a baby to pluck that sucker out and give her the full treatment.
But the problem is, isolating a single scary element from a film isn't a surefire path to success. Who would want to see a movie about the bundle of sticks from Blair Witch? Or the puppet from Saw? Or how about the Ouija board from Paranormal Activity?
Well, this is awkward.
What I'm saying is that isolating one element of a narrative requires a lot of expanding, and on the rushed production schedule of Annabelle, released just slightly more than a year after The Conjuring, it's all too tempting to crib story points from other films. That and the fact that directing privileges were tossed (presumably as a favor) to the cinematographer of Insidious, Insidious 2, and The Conjuring does not inspire confidence.
The fact that Annabelle is actually pretty OK is incidental, though a welcome occurrence. The plot jerks and herks across the screen, relying almost entirely on the audience's knowledge of other, similar, movies to wallpaper over some of the more egregious gaps. Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and even Rosemary's Baby get in on the fun.
Be that as it may, there still is a plot, so a small recap is in order. Mia (Annabelle Wallis - her real name, believe it or not) and her just slightly douchey husband John (Ward Horton, the requisite blandly handsome male lead with a patina of douchiness à la Zach Gilford), a young hotshot doctor, are expecting their first child. One day, because one or both of them is apparently a psychopath, John gets Mia a large doll to celebrate the upcoming birth.
This is literally the least creepy she looks at any point in the entire movie.
When two members of a mysterious Satanic cult attack their home, the young woman, Annabelle Higgins, dies while clutching the doll, bleeding directly into its eye because of course. Afterwards, mysterious and inexplicable events begin to occur around the house. Mia grows increasingly perturbed as she realizes that an evil force is pursuing her and her unimaginatively-named daughter Lea in their Pasadena apartment, which is roughly the size of the Kremlin.
You could comfortably fit four college students in their hallway alone.
To tell you the truth, MILD SPOILERS [these goings on really have frick-all to do with the doll, who never in any way acts the way she was described to in The Conjuring, instead merely being a conduit for a CGI demon]. As the plot progresses, it gets easier to ignore the contrivances (why oh why keep the doll around; Mia's new BFF Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) just happens to be an expert on hauntings) and pitfalls (an unfruitful thematic link to the Manson family) because, for the most part, the film isn't entirely inept.
For the most part.
There are scenes shot with such flatness they wouldn't be out of place on the Lifetime channel and the camera has an unusual tendency to wobble around without focusing on anything of merit. Several scenes have the unmistakable tang of being unfinished and the screenplay is a handy reference tool for any horror enthusiast looking to catalogue the most trite, cliché lines in the "my house is making noises when I didn't ask it to" genre.
Also, Mia is still surprised when the door creaks shut 2/3 of the way through the movie.
But say what you will about Annabelle, she knows how to do the dance. The foregrounding of certain key objects throughout the film is inelegant, but keeps the audience feeling proud to be one step ahead of the characters and shouting at the screen. And the filmmakers were at least smart enough not to overdo their use of the doll, avoiding using tacky effects to elevate her creepiness. MILD SPOILERS [Unfortunately, the demon does not fare the same way, growing increasingly tiresome after his subtle and spine-tingling debut.]
And despite the stock situations that populate the majority of the film, three key scenes (and one in particular that I wouldn't spoil with a gun to my head) rise above the material, providing effective and powerful shocks. Though these three best parts of the movie exist only in the moment with next to no staying power after the closing credits, it at least shows that somebody was attempting to bring their A game to this project.
Or at least their B+ game.
Overall, Annabelle has nothing worth lauding, it's filled with overused tropes of the genre, and the character mechanics are a little shopworn, but it packs just enough of a punch to be a fizzy Halloween treat instead of a razor sharp trick.
TL;DR: Annabelle is surprisingly tight for a quickie spin-off, but is utterly unmemorable.
Should I Spend Money On This? Well, it's probably better than Ouija, so if you're looking for some wide release Halloween fun, why not?
Word Count: 987
Reviews In This Series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)