Last year’s The Conjuring was a huge hit. I did not see it, because I hate horror movies. But I love them too, you know? The good ones scare the crap out of me, so I have an especially tough time with them in theaters. When The Conjuring came out I chose to see Blue Jasmine instead, and I don’t regret the decision because while my companions and I were in the lobby, we watched a freaked out woman cry as she ran out of the horror film. So that did nothing to assuage my fears. The movie ended up being such a success that a spin-off starring the movie’s creepy doll, Annabelle, was greenlit. Annabelle is that movie.
Annabelle opens with a scene from the earlier film, re-establishing the character (hah!) of Annabelle, before diving into her origin story. Incredibly white doctor-and-father-to-be John Gordon (Ward Horton) buys the doll as a present for his super white and pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis, no relation to the titular character). I don’t even necessarily mean “white” in terms of their skin color (though they are – very much so); John and Mia are just so average and milquetoast that the word “white” feels like the most appropriate adjective. These characters are so boring that they often forget each other’s names. At least I assume they do, because there is no other explanation for how many times character names are said out loud during the course of the movie.
So Mia is really into dolls. Advice for surviving a horror movie #1 – if your wife is really into dolls, start considering a divorce. John is not as smart as I am, however, and so one night the worst nightmare of every suburban couple is realized: a pair of satanic-death-cultists break into the Gordon home, and ultimately die, but not before bleeding on the Annabelle doll, thus imbuing it with an evil spirit forever. You know, the usual story.
So that’s how you create an evil doll (eat your heart out, R. L. Stine). Annabelle begins to torment Mia and newborn daughter Lea (what a weird naming convention. I wonder if screenwriter Gary Dauberman realized those names rhyme. Probably not.). John, because he is a husband in a horror movie, assumes that she is going nuts from all the stress. Advice for surviving a horror movie #2 – if your usually-sane wife says crazy things are happening, believe her. Even if she likes dolls.
Mia seeks help from various sources, including kindly Father Perez (Tony Amendola – from Stargate SG-1!) and kindly neighbor Evelyn (Alfre Woodard). Advice for surviving a horror movie #3 – keep plenty of minorities around so that they can take the brunt of the film’s abuse. Mia and John actually follow this last one, but is still too late to save their souls?
Annabelle is exactly the kind of horror movie that I usually avoid (it was not my idea to go – I wanted to see The Boxtrolls – but I did agree to it). The script (by Dauberman) is boring and actively stupid in moments (whenever day breaks, Mia immediately forgets the scary things that happened the night before, choosing to leave her baby alone and investigate creepy noises). The direction (by director-of-photography-turned-director-of-the-film John R. Leonetti) is mostly bland and uninspired. Only the actors seem invested on the project, and that’s just half of the time.
Leonetti isn’t completely useless. His eye for camera work pays off in the way he and cinematographer James Kniest shoot the doll. The lighting and the angles (and probably a little digital magic) make it seem like Annabelle could start moving around at any time, though the filmmakers thankfully avoid such a silly choice. They do not however, avoid jump scares, though Leonetti and Dauberman do take pains to include some effective psychological horror toward the conclusion. As a cerebral guy, I can appreciate that move.
Unfortunately, it ends up being too little, too late. Annabelle is a totally run-of-the-mill horror flick, just in time for Halloween. What’s frustrating is that there are signs of hidden quality throughout the movie, especially near the end. Perhaps if the executives at New Line had taken their time before rushing Annabelle into production, horror fans would have a worthy addition to the Conjure-verse. Let’s hope, for the sake of those weirdos, that the studio is more patient with the inevitable Conjuring 2.