You Can’t Sink Your Teeth Into Any of the Ideas in ‘Annabelle’

Annabelle pales in the shadow of its predecessor, the far superior The Conjuring.

When The Conjuring, James Wan’s based-on-a-true-story movie about demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren and their attempts to clear a Rhode Island farmhouse of haunts, became a hit, it seemed almost inevitable that a sequel or spin-off was on its way. It would be natural to pin the next film on the Warrens. After all, they’re established, well-liked characters based on real people who no doubt have a treasure trove of haunted house stories that could be mined for cinematic scares.

Instead, we get Annabelle, a spin-off that’s pegged to a haunted object — a creepy doll — that makes an appearance in The Conjuring. The movie, with director John R. Leonetti stepping in for James Wan, heads back in time to tell the story of how the Annabelle doll acquires its bad juju.

Where The Conjuring had Ed and Lorraine Warren, Annabelle has its own central couple: John (Ward Horton) and Mia (played by an actress also named Annabelle, Annabelle Wallis), a med student and his pregnant wife living an upwardly mobile life in Santa Monica in 1969. While it seems that they have a blissfully domestic life, bad things start to happen when their house is invaded by a couple who belong to some kind of Satanic cult — right around the time that John gifts Mia with the Annabelle doll.

With a period setting and a story centered on family, it seems like Annabelle is attempting to replicate some of the The Conjuring‘s strengths; it also duplicates the first film’s eerie moods and tense setpieces. In some places, it succeeds; Leonetti makes great use of deep focus, with threatening figures crossing the way, way back of the frame. These moments are startling without resorting to the typical, easy jump scares

However, Leonetti doesn’t have Wan’s way with imagery, and these moments fail to build on one another. It seems at times like Annabelle is trying to imply that domesticity itself is under attack: sewing machines start by themselves, a bedroom television can’t get reception, and baby dolls are tampered with. But then it finds itself dabbling in pretty much any kind of horror-movie elements it can get its hands on, throwing in all different kinds of religious symbolism, other creepy children who have barely anything to do with the story, and an all-knowing bookstore owner (a thankless role for Alfre Woodard), so that its message, such as it is, becomes diluted.

Even the Annabelle doll itself illustrates this movie’s lack of forward momentum. The doll is treated as if it were a normal, if vintage, doll that looks more and more demonic as the movie goes on. In fact, it looks frightening right out of the box, enough to make one wonder why anyone would let it into their homes in the first place. (The complaints that people have about Jack Nicholson in The Shining certainly apply here.) Even what the Annabelle doll represents becomes hindered by layers of remove. If the doll is evil, it’s only because it fell into the hands of the cult members, so it’s more of a tool than a real boogeyman.

In this way, Annabelle brings up a lot of ideas, but sinks its teeth into none of them to the point where you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to be scared of anymore. (Dolls? Satanists? Demons?) Or it happens that you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to get behind to combat whatever the evil forces are. (A strong family unit? Organized religion?)

Whatever the case may be, the film doesn’t bring back the Warrens, which is a shame because Annabelle is inspired by an object in their Occult Museum. In real life, though, the doll wasn’t a terrifying-looking porcelain doll, but a common Raggedy Ann. That makes it scarier to me, but there are probably trademark reasons, in addition to aesthetic ones, for why a Raggedy Ann wasn’t used in the movie. Still, one would think such a fact would be mentioned in the behind-the-scenes Blu-ray feature that supposedly gives the backstory to the real doll — nope. Instead, it just interviews the cast and crewmembers (not anyone really familiar with the story) while showing footage from Annabelle and The Conjuring (not the real doll).

There are many behind-the-scenes features, but most of them continue in the same way, interviewing the same cast and crew about various aspect of the production. One about the creepy things that happened during filming is the most entertaining; the rest are take-it-or-leave-it. Wan does appear in a few of them, which is nice for putting certain aspects of the filmmaking in the context of the previous movie.

Still, nothing in Annabelle is as simply scary, or builds as gracefully, as Wan’s game of “hide and clap” from The Conjuring.

RATING 3 / 10