I swear, almost every time I decide to give a movie with bad reviews a chance, nothing comes out of it but disappointment. I wanted to like Annabelle. As a resident of Connecticut, the story of the Annabelle doll is rather popular, as is the Warren family. Therefore, it was pretty awesome to see an urban legend close to home go mainstream. After such a huge hit like The Conjuring, I was excited for a new horror franchise to come from it. What we got instead was a less-than-average film that makes Paranormal Activity 4 look like Oculus.
1. Unconvincing lead performances.
The lead actress, Annabelle Wallis, gives a shoddy performance in this film. Throughout the movie, her acting is stiff and sometimes stoic. There are moments when she is in great danger and all she does is stare into space. In one scene where she is stabbed in the stomach while pregnant, she barely reacts to it. Now, shock could be a decent excuse, but she doesn't break a sweat or shake in fear. Sure, she passes out, but Wallis never really conveys the emotion that the script seemed to be aiming for, at least for me.
In a scene before that, she calls the police to report a murder. It is clear as day that she is acting, as all she does is awkwardly stutter her lines in a scripted fashion to express fear. She barely sheds a tear and stumbles through the movie like she is on Zzzquil.
Ward Horton isn't much better. Most of his screen time is spent chuckling and smiling. He doesn't really express much fear either, and his on-screen chemistry with Wallis is extremely weak. Many of the same problems Wallis' performance had exist with him. These are the actors who are supposed to be the stars of a horror movie, but their attempts to portray fear are sorely lacking.
In The Conjuring, we got amazing performances from actors like Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Joey King, and Lili Taylor. All of these actors act as terrified as the script requires and thensome, leading to a truly terrifying and immersive experience. The acting in Annabelle, however, makes the experience much less terrifying than it could have been. If I were to make one of those puns that other reviewers make, I'd say the acting was more wooden than the doll.
2. Dumb lead characters
Dumb decisions are common in horror movies to the point of cliche. Movies like Scary Movie and Cabin in the Woods have made fun of the dimwitted types of protagonists. These are the types of characters that don't bother to move out of a clearly haunted house, hide in a room upstairs instead of escape outside, and split up only to be picked off one by one. We've seen these cliches for decades, yet it is 2014 and we have two protagonists whose idiocy is cranked up to eleven.
To give an idea on how dumb the two main characters are: I'll give a couple of examples. When Mia and John (Wallis and Horton respectively) first notice that the Annabelle doll can move around on its own, John throws it in the trash outside their house. As they are moving in to a new apartment building, they find the Annabelle doll in a box. So what does Mia do? She sets it back on the shelf.
Later on in the movie, Mia and her baby are in the dining room playing in front of a book case when a noise is heard down the hall. Mia motions for her baby to stay like a dog and leaves her in the dining room while she sees where the noise came from. She eventually gets locked in the room, leaving the baby to almost be hit by books falling off the bookcase she left her in front of. Absolutely stunning parenting we have here.
3. A rushed screenplay.
This movie is supposed to be a prequel to last year's The Conjuring. On the contrary, it barely has any relation to it or the alleged true story of the Annabelle doll it is based on. We hear a woman in the beginning describe the story of the doll moving around on its own, but that's pretty much the only connection the movie has to the real story.
According to Lorraine Warren (the woman now in possession of the real doll), the doll was a gift that a nurse received from her mother. The doll (pictured above) was already home to an evil spirit. In the movie, a couple of satanic cult members invade the protagonists' home and almost kill the couple and their unborn baby as an offering to Satan. However, in the process of their attempted murder, they conjure a spirit up that takes the Annabelle doll as its host.
In many ways, it just seemed like the studio was in a hurry to make a Conjuring franchise. So in order to get a film out the year after first one, they took a random horror script and threw in the Annabelle doll in an attempt to connect it to the previous film.
4. Predictable jump-scares.
Now, don't get me wrong, jump-scares can be great when done right. In real life, if you are walking down a dark hallway, one of the most common fears is that something will jump out at you. With a combination of atmosphere and convincing acting, jump-scares can be the quintessential element of a terrifying scene. However, this film seems to randomly insert a orchestral "boom" to something you already saw coming.
One scene in the beginning involves Mia looking under the door to make sure her baby is okay. It's pretty obvious from the camera angle that something's going to pop up from above the crack of the door. Sure enough, the Annabelle doll falls into view with a "boom" sound.
Another instance of a lazy scare happens when Mia hears a banging at her door. She looks out the eye hole and sees the preacher at her church standing in front of and faced away from the door. He stands still as she slowly reaches to touch his shoulder. You just know the moment she touches his shoulder that he will scream or turn his head. What happens? He shouts demonically as the camera cuts to his face (pictured above).
Now to be fair, the film was not without its moments. Director John R. Leonetti does a very good job setting up the scenes and using obscure lighting to make the evil spirits more terrifying. The sound editing and cinematography are top notch as well, so the movie looks and sounds up-to-par. This is especially impressive for the director who brought us this scene:
One specific example I can think of is the scene where the main heroine is chased up the stairs by an evil entity. Leonetti and the rest of the crew effectively use shadows, strobe lights, and darkness to give a feeling of ominous danger.
Another is a scene where the demon possessing Annabelle fools the heroine into thinking that she murdered her own child in an attempt to destroy the Annabelle doll (pictured above. This scene is one of the only times that cliches come in handy. It is common for evil spirits to play mind games, so the minute that Mia saw Annabelle in her child's crib, your first guess is that the spirit is disguising the baby as the doll. So when she starts shaking it and slamming its head, it is quite terrifying to see. The fact that it wasn't actually the baby makes the scene even more terrifying. It was as if the spirit was warning her of what will happen if she does not sacrifice her soul to it; it will take the baby's instead by tricking her.
Another scare that works well is one where the ghost of a little girl is standing down the hall in another room. She runs into the room Mia is in and transforms into an older demonic woman as she enters the room. Sadly, this scene was spoiled in the trailer. Wallis' lack of a reaction doesn't help either.
Unfortunately, these are just a couple of scenes in a movie that could have had many more scenes like them. Between the dumb characters. unconvincing performances, and lack of effective scares, Annabelle adds up to a mediocre horror film. Hopefully the next film in the planned Conjuring franchise will top this sloppy, rushed mess of a film.
Update (10/6/14): I have a couple of retractions I'd like to make. Mia did in fact know the man at her door was the preacher. That is why she opened it, so it wasn't as dumb of a decision as I thought it was. I wasn't sure she knew it was him since his back was turned. Still, the jump scare was predictable and not very startling. Also, I had previously listed John coming out of the neighbors' house with blood on him as a lazy jump scare. Compared to the other jump scares, it wasn't really worth listing as an example of a lazy one. It was somewhat unpredictable. It was still badly timed though.
Final Grade: C-
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