Every October, the public is subjected to a spate of horror films that capitalize on the demand for cheap thrills accompanying the Halloween season. Hollywood studios respond by churning out cinematic genre dreck that is often best described as adequate. “Annabelle” unfortunately follows suit with this annual trend as a film that lurks somewhere in the depths far below cinematic mediocrity.
“You have to start locking it, John. It’s a different world now,” says the very pregnant Mia (Annabelle Wallis) as her husband (Ward Horton) opens the front door to their quaint suburban Santa Monica home. The bland young couple bickers while the story of the Manson murders runs on the television. Of course, only a few beats later, before the couple is besieged in the night by a pair of crazed cultists. This attack is accidentally the most terrifying bit of the film, as it preys upon the collective fear that our homes are not safe places and deranged psychopaths lurk in the shadows of suburbia waiting to slit our throats with no provocation. But the film is not about that. The narrative quickly moves on, turning to the eponymous killer doll who will terrorize a young couple because the screenwriter said so. Interesting thematic exploration is left at the door, tepid been-there-done-that ‘scares’ ensue.
As a prop, Annabelle the demonic doll could not be any more preposterously evil if it was infested with live scarab beetles and draped in flaming pentagrams. It is filthy, wild eyed, covered in cuts(?) and scars(?!) and very clearly something inappropriate for children and adults alike to associate with. In case these visual tells are not enough to remind one the doll is a monstrosity there are multiple instances of the camera lingering on its face while dramatic violin strings squeal away.
“There, she fits right in,” says Mia placing the absurd monstrosity between other, normal-looking dolls purchased in a toy store from our normal reality. Annabelle looks like it just came from a garbage can… Namely because John just threw it away. He protests. Mia, having declared the doll evil earlier because it tried to set her on fire, shushes him, insisting it belongs with them. We call this ‘screenwriter gymnastics.’ Try to refrain from getting dizzy watching the loop-de-loops.
“Annabelle” comes to us from the growing oeuvre of producer James Wan, responsible for the “Saw” franchise, both “Insidious” films and the very tangentially related “The Conjuring.” This collection belongs to a modern ethos of horror films which are long on silly visual scares and short on storytelling. Director John Leonetti moves the camera with some skill giving the film a desperately needed injection of kineticism. Yet the only things he has to show are doors slightly moving of their own accord and ghostly, inert figures in the far corners of the frame.
Later, Leonetti switches gears into a dispassionate, thoughtless homage to the classic horror film “Rosemary’s Baby.” Mia (nudge, nudge) and co. move to an apartment complex, where she pushes her baby around a VERY familiar stroller and gets tormented by Satan who happens to live in their basement. Leonetti’s stab at recreating Polanski’s staggering meditation on the dread and ‘otherness’ of motherhood comes across a child smearing watercolors next to a Rembrandt painting.
“Annabelle” is a sequel/prequel to the 2013 so-so horror period-piece “The Conjuring.” The connection is neither here nor there. It is yet again a film brought into existence on the cynical belief that movies cut entirely from whole cloth cannot be successful in today’s market. The film begins and ends with some text flimsily tethering the properties together. The gesture is shrug-worthy.
Leonetti’s film has been soullessly designed to put bodies in seats this holiday season and little else. No amount of referencing other, better horror films or a window dressing of 1960s aesthetics will make a movie about a ridiculous doll potent in the scare department. The demon in “Annabelle” needs to consume a soul given willingly to gain power. Don’t let yours be the one it takes.