Annabelle Dir. John R. Leonetti

[Warner Brothers; 2014]

Styles: horror, prequel
Others: The Conjuring, Dead Silence, Repulsion, Child’s Play

“It started slow,” is the first line in Annabelle — and it did. The story of the possessed doll terrorizing people in the 1970s that is this movie was first just the prologue to The Conjuring. It was ten minutes or less, a setup that, presumably, gave us some background on Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators that were the basis of that movie and don’t make an appearance in this one — presumably, as well, because this movie is a work of complete fiction while The Conjuring only boasted itself as partially fictitious.

Annabelle doesn’t actually even bear any similarities to its Conjuring roots, really: it’s based a year before that prologue even begins, with a couple who purchases the doll to complete some collection or other that is arbitrary and never explained. There is a cult that, for inexplicable reasons, breaks into their house and paints some doomy symbol onto their wall in blood before being gunned down by cops. Either a demon or a person or both begins possessing the doll and bad things start happening: doors creaking, TV reception growing fuzzy, and then bigger things like the stovetop turning on and burning popcorn so badly it sets fire to the whole house, etc.

Throughout all of the terror, the helmers (not James Wan, who directed The Conjuring and only acts as a producer on Annabelle) rightfully decide not to make the doll go full Child’s Play and start walking and talking. But that still begs the question of how she moves from place to place or settles with her arms crossed differently than how she was left. It’s trying to show and not tell, leave some things behind smoke and mirrors, but it feels more like a tugging plot hole — a string you can’t leave alone — rather than a mask of cleverness.

The movie focuses on a couple — new parents — but the father is mainly absent. The mother is the main character here, and we are witnessing her undoing. It plays like a made-for-TV version of Rosemary’s Baby mushed with Repulsion; it takes place first in their house, and then, after they move, in a tenement building, with noisy upstairs neighbors and always-drawn drapes. And since we never see the doll moving, and there is no solid evidence of the haunting, only testimony, it seems almost like watching someone’s sanity crumbling from their perspective. It brings up the fragility of a woman after childbirth, how she fears more for her baby than for herself, and, maybe and despicably, of the weaknesses of women in some misogynistic way, a trope that horror movies are at once familiar with and familiar with commentating against, in final girls and witches dens.

But Annabelle holds up poorly to scrutinization. It isn’t clever or intelligent like Polanski’s movies. Its goal is to startle more than scare. It fails at building a mood — one of the things that Wan has excelled at with his features. It has learned its blueprints from its predecessors — The Conjuring and Insidious — but it has left out innovation entirely. You’ll know how it goes. You’ll whisper the next plot twist to your neighbor before it comes. You’ll be startled. Giggle. Repeat.

Most Read