Rarely can it be said that a prop has spawned its own franchise. It’s thus a credit to the art department and production design of The Conjuring that the new Warner Bros. horror film that kicks off the October moviegoing season is simply titled Annabelle, and the audience immediately knows what to expect. There’s no, “The Conjuring Saga” or “The Conjuring Presents,” because we don’t need the brand name to know who the show-stealer from summer 2013 is. The grungy moppet with a thousand-yard stare into the most petrified regions of your soul was the opening shot of last year’s horror blockbuster, and will likely prove this weekend that she can open a movie too.
Then again, maybe WB just realized that they didn’t want to soil the name of The Conjuring this soon with such a rote, by-the-numbers chiller? Because unfortunately, beyond three or four spectacular scares (two of which are in the trailers), the most unnerving thing about the Annabelle prequel is how eerily predictable the machinations tend to be.
Last year, I raved that James Wan’s Conjuring moved like an elegant machine that smoothed every frame for maximum horror. However, I was remiss not to stress that this was achieved by a filmmaker who knew his way around more than a few ghoulish stories (The Conjuring marked the director’s third “surprise” possession of the zeitgeist), as well as the urgent humanity and unexpectedly take-charge performances of nearly all involved.
Besides using the 1971 setting as a return to the timeless kind of horror cinema that relied on tension over gore, The Conjuring satisfyingly subverted the expectation by making the “specialists,” Ed and Lorraine Warren, the centerpiece of the story. Portrayed by two underrated talents in Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they effortlessly imbued the protagonists with imperative sympathy and refreshingly did not wait until the third act to bother doing anything about the pesky demons wrecking havoc in the night. Annabelle has none of that.
Freed from the last tenuously strained tether of “Based on a True Story” shenanigans, Annabelle is a completely safe screamer with a husband that doesn’t do anything until the last reel, and a helpful priest that has doom written on his brow in the opening frame. However, for horror enthusiasts, it still knows how to ratchet up the uneasiness for its biggest set pieces, and in those moments it might jolt you out of your chair—if you’re still paying attention.
Located in sunny Santa Monica during 1970 (by way of the 1950s-set Masters of Sex, judging by the gender politics), Annabelle focuses on a blandly happy couple: Mia and John (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton). John is a square-jawed dullard who is going for his residency, and Mia is the happy homebody who is eight-months pregnant and looking forward to their child. Otherwise, they’re Catholic (when it’s convenient for the narrative) and they don’t lock their front door. The only other thing that I can say about them for sure is that they collect dolls since how else does a collector’s item like Annabelle end up in this home?
The doll herself isn’t named Annabelle yet when John buys it for his porcelain-loving wife. That comes when the ‘real’ Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend make an unannounced visit in the night. Human Annabelle apparently ran away from home as a teenager and “joined the hippies” several years ago, and she’s now back to introduce her beau to the parents, who also happen to be Mia and John’s nosy neighbors. Faster than you can say Manson Family, they’ve gutted mom and dad and come for Mia and her unborn child in a satanic ritual meant to summon demonic forces.
The cops may have put Annabelle Higgins down, but her dying blood that drips on the doll ensures that Annabelle will live on to haunt at least several more October releases, I’m sure.
An armrest-destroyer involving a basement elevator and a devilish stalker aside, the film actually taps into a truly primal horror in these early scenes. While The Conjuring clearly had The Exorcist on its mind, Annabelle is looking to an earlier devil movie, or at least its director. Simply by moving the story across the country to California, screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director John R. Leonetti explicitly choose to set the movie in the shadow of the Sharon Tate murders.
While Human Annabelle and her lover are simply described as members of “a cult” for most of the movie, it is not hard to imagine that the filmmakers hope that a happy mistake occurs about which cult targets a young, beautiful mother well into her pregnancy. Indeed, right down to the name of the first neighbor slaughtered, Sharon Higgins (Kerry O’Malley)—not to mention the names of Mia and John sharing similarities to Rosemary’s Baby’scast—it is obvious Annabelle has Manson on its mind.
There is a certain justifiable menace in this since there are few true crime stories more horrific than when a cult senselessly and incomprehensibly slaughtered five strangers in a house, with Ms. Tate being eight months pregnant with her and Polanski’s child. It is one of the most unimaginable terrors to even cross one’s mind, and it is effectively repellant when the knife-wielder stabs at Mia’s womb within Annabelle’s first 10 minutes. Any paranormal boos won’t hold a candle to that out-of-body experience.
Perhaps that is also a grotesque oddity unto itself when a film that is forced to conjure mighty real world tragedies in lieu of the creaky formula that haunts the rest of the movie.
Ms. Wallis plays Mia affably enough for the rest of the film’s running time. After her baby is miraculously saved and she must be in bed-rest for much of the rest of the film, she believably looks disturbed as the Annabelle doll ominously creaks away in a rocking chair in the other room, and she drips with desperation when she pleads with her husband to believe that she is seeing ghost children running around the house. But much like solid supporting work by Tony Amendola as Father Perez and Alfre Woodard as another helpful neighbor, Wallis’ performance is possessed by an otherwise mechanical drabness attempting to behave like a screenplay.
Compared to the on-the-nose hilarity of seeing Chucky run his mouth (as well as his legs) in the Child’s Play franchise, there is a relative restraint to Annabelle since this evil doll barely ever takes a single step while on camera. And director John R. Leonetti, who very effectively lensed The Conjuring as director of photography, shows equal caution in not letting his directorial debut oversell its depraved doll, which can cause a full audience to hiss with nervous, spooked laughter with every sustained close-up of its insidious face.
However, much like Mia and John, his film doesn’t really start doing much of anything beyond the big scares until the third act. And by that point, one might as well just hold out and wait for the actual Conjuring 2 sometime next year.