'Annabelle' tries to cash in on past success, but it may have been better off with more of the devil and less of the doll
Annabelle Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: John R. Leonetti
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Brian Howe and Kerry O'Malley
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
October 3, 2014
(out of four)
Not since The Hobbit has a title character been so incidental to its own movie. Annabelle is named after a possessed doll - the one introduced last year in The Conjuring - but its presence has deceptively little to do with the actual events. It almost feels like a completely unrelated horror script was retrofitted to include the doll for brand recognition purposes.
The real foe is no doll, but the devil himself. (Or it could just be a demon. Since I don't think the movie ever clarifies explicitly, we'll go ahead and assume it's the big guy.) Annabelle, that creepy porcelain figure with the white dress and the dirty blond pigtails, is just along for the ride. Satan's doing all the scaring. "Possession" would be one thing if we never actually saw the actual possessor - if the doll were the entire personification of the malevolence at the center of the story.
But no - once the devil shows up on screen, Annabelle's nothing but a sideshow. And really, it's been too long, hasn't it? We missed you, Satan. What's it been, three months? I think Deliver Us from Evil was the last time we met. Before that, it was all the way back in January. And hey, with At the Devil's Door and The Devil's Hand coming up, it's shaping up to be a good autumn for you, eh?
If there's something oddly familiar about the way the devil is used in Annabelle, it's because the filmmakers seem to be taking their cues from the Satanic visage in 2010's similarly themed Insidious - which, like The Conjuring, was directed by James Wan, who is listed as a producer on Annabelle. The characters in these films may as well all be neighbors.
This time around, the devil appears mostly in charcoal grey, a dramatic shift from his more ostentatious Darth Maul Chic look from Insidious. But otherwise he looks largely the same. He appears mostly in the shadows, and only for a few seconds at a time. But I have to give director John R. Leonetti credit for those scenes in particular. They're legitimately eerie - by far the most unsettling moments in the film - and it's because of the restraint with which Leonetti stages them.
From the beast's first appearance (standing in the background in an unlit basement) to his most frightening (on the bottom step of an equally dark stairwell, on all fours, seemingly waiting to pounce), he's practically an apparition, passive but nonetheless imminently threatening. He's so perpetually still. He might as well be posing for a portrait.
Those scenes, which are all in the latter portion of the film, embody that keen sense of primal fear that the best of horror can elicit. The never-safe feeling, the it's-just-behind-you feeling, the can't-run-fast-enough feeling. Leonetti and editor Tom Elkins smartly construct those sequences to emphasize a claustrophobic darkness, drawing ideas out for several moments at a time and resisting the urge to go for a cheap temporary payoff.
It made me wish the movie had done as good a job elsewhere, and that brings us back to the problem of Annabelle her(it?)self. The doll looked appropriately creepy in The Conjuring, but - like a quirky supporting character in a TV show that gets rolled over into a terrible spinoff - she can't carry her own movie. And the fact that this becomes a story explicitly rooted in the mythology of Satanic cults in the 1960s renders Annabelle rather anachronistic and banal by comparison. We see news footage early in the film detailing the Manson Family murders, and a similar attack takes place just a few scenes later, right next door to our main characters, Mia Gordon (Annabelle - yes, really - Wallis) and her husband John (Ward Horton).
The violence next door spills over into the Gordons' home, with one of the assailants stabbing Mia in her several-months-pregnant stomach before being gunned down by the police.
The unborn child is safe, but terror continues to follow Mia and John around in the months following the attack. And it all seems to center around the doll that Mia insists on keeping on her shelf* - the doll that John is just positive he threw away.
* And another thing: While Mia is a collector of dolls, I can't imagine what would possess her, or anyone, to want that Annabelle doll on her shelf in the first place. It's a ghastly thing, as creepy as it is ugly. And yet Mia proudly displays it as the centerpiece of her collection.
But therein lies the film's internal contradiction. It begins by showing us flesh-and-blood humans murdering loved ones in the name of the devil - and then we're expected to be just as threatened by a plastic doll that keeps failing in its attempts to do the same? What, like Charles Manson is going to be equaled or bested by the likes of an inanimate children's bedroom accessory? Please. The demonic imagery late in the film is effective in part because, by comparison, it can't help but feel like more of a threat than the titular doll.
Annabelle provides Mia and John with the requisite side characters - the wise older woman (played by Alfre Woodard, who deserves so much better) who understands a thing or two about the supernatural, and the wise old priest (we couldn't afford F. Murray Abraham Tony Amendola) who selflessly tries to save them. It's all passably executed, but rarely with any palpable dread or terror. As a companion piece to The Conjuring, it's theoretically interesting but not really necessary; considered on its own, it's not so interesting anymore, and every bit as unnecessary.