Take Rosemary’s Baby, cram in a nod to Helter Skelter, augment with the whole “haunted object” trope, and you’ve got Annabelle, the prequel/sequel to last year’s horror megahit The Conjuring. An “origin story” of sorts, this quick cash-in wants to explain why the title entity, a doll owned by the previous film’s Ed and Lorraine Warren, became so horrifically evil. What we learn is that cults create crazed killers, demons love to torment the bland, and without James Wan in the director’s chair, an old fashioned spook show can be incredibly underwhelming.
Indeed, John R. Leonetti, a cinematographer with limited directing credits who worked closely with Wan in the past (Dead Silence, Insidious), doesn’t understand the building of dread, layer by layer. Instead, his movie works in small, short spurts. During those moments, we can see the potential in this premise. When it doesn’t, we are stuck in long, uninvolving sequences where insipid characters complain about dull things. Wan would have made sure that every horror beat led to another exciting scare. Leonetti has no idea how to match his mentor.
After briefly revisiting the nurses from the opening of The Conjuring, we go back one year to California, 1969. The news is flush with stories of Charles Manson and his family, putting everyone, including expecting parents Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) on edge. One night, they are attacked by the psychotic hippy daughter of their best friends and neighbors. Satanic in motive, it appears the girl and her equally unhinged boyfriend were looking for a soul to steal. Mia is injured, but her baby girl survives and is born normally.
The couple move to Pasadena, and while John goes on to begin his career as a doctor, Mia is left at home, psychologically scarred by what’s happened. Then weird things start happening around their new apartment. Mia sees visions of the crazed killers as well as demonic figures in the shadows. After consulting with the supernaturally savvy bookstore owner Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), the Gordons must confront the fact that a horrific entity has latched onto one of their newborn’s dolls, and won’t rest until it has taken possession of the child.
There are several sensational sequences in Annabelle. The opening attack, with its nods to Charlie and the Family, is ferocious in its intensity, and Mia’s visit to her apartment building’s basement offers a truly terrifying realization. Throughout, Leonetti provides jolts and jumps, struggling to maintain the suspense inherent in the situation. But he doesn’t have the skill to control other, equally important elements of the film.
Take the obvious bows to Roman Polanski’s classic. The Gordon’s first names — Mia and John — are clear shoutouts to that film’s actors (Farrow and Cassavetes), but that’s as far as the homage goes. Annabelle Wallis is also a weak link here. Her face is porcelain perfect, but she has a hard time registering anything but boredom. A stronger actress in the lead, ala Lili Taylor or Vera Farminga, would have gone a long way to getting us behind Mia’s struggle. Similarly, Horton is a Ken doll drained of anything really compelling. Only Woodard warrants our attention.
Also, since the doll’s purpose is basically established in advance, how we get there is important. Instead of leading to that, however, Annabelle gets it out of the way right up front. That leaves 90 more minutes of dull conversation, occasional shocks, and the less than impressive parish priest (Tony Amendola) who adds little to the proceedings aside from gravitas. A movie like Annabelle should be like a dark ride, the viewer unsure what terrors are coming around the next corner. Instead, once it establishes its patterns, it becomes as predictable as Hollywood’s desire to spin The Conjuring‘s $300 million box office into a franchise. Annabelle fails at this.