Sometimes, it only takes a single sequence to showcase how uninteresting the rest of your movie is. In Annabelle, the pre-sequel to James Wan’s box office behemoth The Conjuring, the scene takes place in a murky apartment building basement. Our heroine, new mother Mia Gordon, has been having hallucinations, visions triggered from a traumatic event that occurred a few months before (more on this in a moment). While in the gloomy space, she hears a noise. An evil looking baby carriage slowly rolls in at the end of the hall. Investigating, she finds nothing. Returning to her work, she looks back and, just for a moment, she swears she sees something… a figure. A demon.
We have the same reaction. Filmed in such a way as to leave us guessing, this Satanic creature continues to lurk just out of range, making us feel as scared and uneasy as the woman it is tormenting. As she scurried back to the safety of her home, Mia constantly looks back and we witness wiry, spindle-like fingers and a crouching red beast with fiery red eyes. It’s a true tour de force moment, one this movie will never find a way to repeat. It’s also an indication that relatively unknown feature filmmaker John R. Leonetti may have a career in creepshows, if only the material matched his mannerisms.
Oddly enough, Annabelle should have a significant supernatural lineage. It’s based on the prologue to Wan’s summer of 2013 hit, where Ed and Lorraine Warren help a pair of nurses with a seemingly possessed doll. The where and how of this control become the heart of this homage, with shoutouts to screamfests like Rosemary’s Baby, Helter Skelter, Wan’s own Insidious and Insidious 2, as well as lesser known pieces of the motion picture paranormal. In essence, what Ed and Lorraine say at the start of The Conjuring is illustrated, with a weird event leading to our happy couple experiencing unexplainable evils.
Before things turn terrifying, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her doctor-to-be husband John (Ward Horton) are living a normal life circa 1969. They go to church with friends and worry over the health of their unborn baby. Then, one night, their world is turned upside down when members of a Satanic cult attack. Mia is stabbed, and survives, while the perpetrators — clearly inspired by the then current clamor over Charles Manson and his Family — are gunned down by police… but not before leaving a crude rune scrawled in blood on the wall. The female involved also cradled Mia’s new doll, Annabelle, in her arms before dying.
Fast forward six months and the Gordons are the proud parents of a baby girl. They have moved to Sacramento to get away from the awful events that occurred and they seem to be settling in nicely. Then weird things start happening around their apartment. Doors open. Windows slam. Strange noises are heard and that horrid Annabelle doll that John thought he threw out reappears. Before long, Mia is at her wits end. Seeking the help of a friendly bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) and her parish priest (Tony Amendola), she hopes to rid her world of this dark force before it steals the soul of her child.
In the hands of someone capable, like James Wan (or any number of new horror maestros), Annabelle would be awesome. It would slowly building its layers of tension, taking moments like the one listed above as just another beat in a constant corkscrewing of suspense. It would then deliver a devastating climax, one befitting all the bedlam we’ve already been subjected to. But thanks to the less than formative powers of Mr. Leonetti, Annabelle is a letdown. it does offer up some significant dread, but there are also elements so deathly dull we pray we never have to see them again.
One such aspect are the Gordons themselves. Named after a certain Ms. Farrow and a Mr. Cassavetes, it’s clear that Roman Polanski’s genre defining devil baby movie is main source of inspiration. Sadly, both Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis are mere mannequins, incapable of anything except looking Stepford. She is particularly bland, which doesn’t work for a harried mother constantly worried that her child is being stalked by Old Scratch. Even in moments of high anxiety, she comes across as vacant and bland. Further proof comes when Ms. Wallis is asked to act alongside someone like Alfre Woodard. With just a look, the former outshines the latter over and over again.
The movie also muddles its mythology. We are told that dolls can become totems, holding a place in the real world for vengeful spirits who don’t belong here. So people throw it away, or bash it on the ground. Oddly, no one thinks of burning it, or throwing it in a furnace, or perhaps a garbage compactor. It’s a source of sour evil and yet it more or less gets the kid gloves treatment. Also, if the demon is attached to the toy, shouldn’t it be the first thing fiddled with? We get endless arguments over other things, but no real focus on the Satanic source. Without the Warrens walking around spouting their demonology knowledge, Annabelle feels piecemeal. Their presence in The Conjuring provided context and clarity where craziness ruled.
Because what Wan did worked so well, because there is a lot of goodwill built up within his own unique horror universe, we occasionally give Annabelle too much credit. The devil sequence, as stated before, is terrific, but it also acts as a reflection of how mediocre most of the movie is. The Manson like attack at the beginning is another example of a concept monopolizing the whole movie. Had such a scene been the mere beginning of a rollercoaster ride, we’d gleefully go along for the fright. But Annabelle lets said sequences settle and sag, returning again and again to pointless exposition and dull, lifeless characters. This could have been great. Unfortunately, it barely lives up to its horror heritage.