If “Annabelle” had any sense of when to let up on the throttle, it could have been one of the truly great horror movies of the past few decades. Instead, it chooses to mentally exhaust the audience by turning every single thing on screen into a weapon of one form or another, and it ramps up the already unnecessary tension with sound work that turns a sewing machine into a thunderstorm. It makes sense, in a way: they’re trying to make the audience as paranoid as the protagonist, but the one thing that “The Conjuring,” the film in which evil doll Annabelle made her feature debut, did so well was balance the light with the dark. “Annabelle” is nothing but darkness, and a lot of that darkness is been-there-done-that darkness. Indeed, the story line is largely borrowed from “Rosemary’s Baby,” with nods to “The Omen,” “Witchboard,” and even “Poltergeist.” Those are good to great sources, but Annabelle deserved a story of her own, not one stitched together from the carcasses of others.
Set in California one year before the opening scene of “The Conjuring,” Mia (Annabelle Wallis. Yes, the lead actress in this movie is named Annabelle, God love her) and her husband/doctor-in-training John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. Soon after we meet John and Mia, their next door neighbors the Higgins are murdered by their daughter Annabelle, now a member of a satanic cult. Annabelle and her accomplice friend try to kill John and Mia as well, but are not successful. Annabelle kills herself in their nursery, holding one of Mia’s porcelain dolls. Annabelle’s blood spills into the eye socket of the doll. The doll, naturally, is now a conduit to evil.
Mia asks John to get rid of the doll, and he does, but when John’s first residency takes them to Burbank, they find the doll boxed up with their stuff. Mia, strangely, decides to keep the doll, and almost instantly regrets it. The kids in her apartment building leave foreboding drawings predicting the death of their now-newborn daughter Leah. Strange things go bump, devices turn on by themselves, and Mia has terrifying visions of Annabelle, among other things. Mia asks the detective working the case of their former neighbors’ murder if he has any information on the cult that Annabelle was in. The detective informs her that the group tries to conjure evil spirits, but they need a soul as a sacrifice in order to do so. Mia is convinced that Annabelle is after Leah’s soul. She does not appear to be wrong.
Annabelle Wallis is lovely. She looks like Naomi Watts, and it is that resemblance to Watts that underscores just how out of her depth she is here. Watts would have killed this role, were it age-appropriate – she did far better in the far worse thriller “Funny Games,” as well as both “Ring” movies – but Wallis is flat as a pancake. She is being terrorized by a malevolent spirit, yet sleepwalks through the first two acts like she has an invisible morphine drip. Director John R. Leonetti has a ton of experience behind the camera, but this is the first time he’s directed a film since 2006. Based on his work here, we’re going to assume that the gap in his directorial resume is not because he doesn’t know how to frame a scene – there are multiple ‘you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it’ moments here, and like “The Conjuring,” they are of the old-school non-CGI variety – but rather that he doesn’t know how to direct actors. The good ones will be fine (case in point: Alfre Woodard, as the wise book store owner), but the ones who need an extra push will be hung out to dry, and they wind up being the difference between “Annabelle” being an average movie and a good one. Well, that and the aforementioned tendency to weaponize everything on screen.
Here’s what is going to happen with “Annabelle”: people are going to remember the truly scary parts and conveniently forget the recycled parts, then tell their friends that this is the Scariest Movie Ever. It’s not, of course, but it has enough going for it to make it worthy of a viewing, provided you aren’t the parent of a newborn child. If you have a newborn, there is absolutely no good that can come from seeing this.(3 / 5)
This originally ran October 2, 2014 on Bullz-Eye.com.