A few nights ago, Moviepilot dispatched me to catch an advanced screening of this weekend’s ANNABELLE – I dared go where no Pilot at our Venice Beach office had the chutzpah to venture.
I’m a big fan of last year’s Warner Bros. horror blockbuster [The Conjuring](movie:600664), so I was stoked when Moviepilot asked if I would go see how its prequel spin-off would stack up and report back to headquarters. Armed to the teeth with a large bag of popcorn, a tall Icee and a hot dog with the works, I marched into the theater – this was going to be a bumpy ride.
The film opens with a preface about how dolls can serve as vessels for evil spirits to manifest themselves, as if we needed to be reminded what we were getting ourselves into. One dude loudly chortles from the back of the theater in mockery. Not even ten seconds in and we already have dissenters. You just wait, loud chortling man.
Our protagonists are established from the get-go as young Los Angeles couple Mia and John, who look like poster children for the American dream. Mia is expecting a child and John is an up and coming physician doing his residencies.
The film takes place in 1971, and director John R. Leonetti does an excellent job of bringing his audience back in time. From the classic cars and outfits, to the dial telephones, mounted cross-stitch embroidery and a brand new 13-inch black and white television set, we feel right at home in early 1970s Santa Monica… for now.
Leonetti’s first few scenes establish his actors and settings from afar, using the long shot to often place his audience on the outskirts of the goings on between Mia and John, as if someone or something is watching… waiting. The doll’s arrival comes as a gift from John to Mia, who is in the midst of decorating their unborn child’s bedroom. Mia graciously places the doll on the bookshelf and leaves the room, cueing the anxiety-inducing strings and slow pan in toward this creepy plastic plaything’s devious smiling face. Cut to black and we know we’ve passed our point of no return – shit’s about to get REAL.
And real it gets. That very night, Mia and John narrowly escape with their lives after a horrifying encounter with two crazed cultists who enter their house and both end up dead in two very different ways. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't already watched the bloody promo clips.
A series of anomalous events begin to unfold as the couple struggles to emotionally rebound from a traumatic experience of this magnitude. Mia deduces these odd happenings have something to do with the strange doll. In a scene reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s notorious “Talking Tina” episode, John disposes of the doll in a tin trashcan behind the house… as if that’s going to work.
The director effectively builds suspense throughout the film by placing his audience in odd corners away from the action, a fly on the wall as he unabashedly delivers terror to our poor protagonists. Spooky lullaby music, a laughing pullstring doll and uneasy violin really put the audience on edge. Also, a surprisingly memorable and well-directed elevator scene is going to resonate with me longer than I'd like it to.
Annabelle isn’t a spectacular movie by any means, but if you’re looking for some cheap scares, dolls as conduits for evil spirits and some good old-fashioned demons praying on innocent souls, you’ve come to the right place. The good thing is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, throwing in some campy jokes here and there. John’s skepticism toward Mia’s spiraling sanity is a metaphor for our own grounded, ghost-free reality, perfectly summed up in his cheesy quip, “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”
The film spoon-feeds its audience the theme that a mother’s love is the most powerful force in the world and must never be subordinated. In a closing quote from Ellen Warren, the real life demon hunter who fought off spirits in The Conjuring, she reminds us that evil and fear is forever present, lurking in the shadows, but that with constant vigilance we must not succumb to its power. So go out there and be good to each other, people, love one another, and be sure you don’t buy any hideous child-size dolls any time soon. Take that, loud chortling man!
[Annabelle](movie:1217914) is in theaters Friday, October 3rd - THAT'S TODAY!