Directed by: John R Leonetti
Starring: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola
You might recall how a few years ago some idiotic Hollywood exec attempted to buy the rights to both Rocky and Raging Bull in order to produce a movie in which Rocky Balboa squared off against Jake LaMotta. Eventually, someone got the message across that one of these boxers was fictional while the other was all too real, and so the concept morphed into Stallone and DeNiro facing off as brand new characters in the dire Grudge Match. What we get with [Annabelle](movie:1217914) is a somewhat similar scenario. Last year's The Conjuring, from which this is spun off, purported to be based on a "real life" case involving the paranormal investigators/con-artists Ed and Lorraine Warren. That movie proved a surprise smash hit, and its most popular element wasn't the central case, but a subplot involving a possessed doll. It was inevitable that said figurine would find herself starring in her own movie, but this spinoff doesn't claim any pretensions to factuality.
Therein lies the film's central issue: how to keep a premise as schlocky as a killer doll grounded in the pseudo-reality of its predecessor? As a result, the movie tries its best to skirt around the issue of its selling point, focusing instead on the post Manson murders hysteria of the early 70s, when anyone harbouring non Christian beliefs was viewed as a potential thrill killer.
Expectant couple Mia (the coincidentally named Annabelle Wallis) and John (Horton) move into their new home; as a housewarming gift, John presents Mia with the hideous doll we came to know to know in The Conjuring. On the first night in their dream home, Mia and John are attacked by two crazed members of a cult, resulting in Mia suffering a stab wound and a possessed female cult inductee's blood leaking into the eye socket of the Annabelle doll, transferring an evil spirit in a paranormal transfusion. The resultant scenario ticks off every cliche in the horror by numbers playbook. Electrical appliances coming to life in the middle of the night? Check. Female spirits with long straggly black hair? Check. Elderly priest brought in to help? Check.
The fact that Annabelle is a doll is purely incidental. Had the dead possessed woman been killed in the kitchen rather than Mia's bedroom, we'd likely have had a movie about a possessed toaster. Annabelle remains inanimate throughout; don't expect Chucky here. You might think this restraint is for the purpose of maintaining the credibility of the Warrens, but if you read the details of the "real life" Annabelle case on their own website, you'll find a luridly over the top account featuring exactly the sort of schlocky nonsense that would have made this movie a lot more enjoyable.
Most of the film's dull and derivative set-pieces are based around potential harm to Mia's child, in both pre and post birth state, which is not only exploitative and in poor taste, it's counter-intuitive. We know a mainstream Hollywood production isn't going to kill an infant, so we never worry for the child. As Mia is the film's lead, we're likewise assured of her safety. John is absent from most of the movie, which only leaves the local priest (the appropriately monikered Tony "Amen"dola) and a bookshop owner with inside knowledge of the occult (Woodard) as potential victims. To borrow from Star Trek parlance, this is an away team with decidedly few red-shirts. Where are the expendable babysitters/handymen etc for Annabelle to pick off?
Director John R Leonetti tries his best with some interesting framing, and displays a better sense of how to use dead space to create dread than most, but his efforts are undermined by the over the top sound design. As with The Conjuring and the Insidious movies, the filmmaker is denied the chance to create tension and suspense through imagery alone. Leonetti sets up some great shock images, but they're consistently ruined by being telegraphed with a loud bang. I can only assume this is for the benefit of the cretins in the audience who need to be told to look up from their (ironically named) "smart" phones. If you happen to be one such ignoramus, I hope you're proud; you're helping to kill the art of visual storytelling.
By Eric Hillis