Mark Reviews Movies

Annabelle

ANNABELLE

2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: John R. Leonetti

Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard, Kerry O'Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin

MPAA Rating: R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 10/3/14


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 2, 2014

The creepy doll from the prologue of The Conjuring was nothing more than a red herring. It effectively put us into that film's world of demonic shenanigans and, later, served as a rather irritating bit of misdirection to get the heroes away from the film's real threat as an arbitrary means to the raise the stakes. That's it. That's all the doll did, yet here is Annabelle, an entire movie focused on the toy's origin.

Annabelle is about as narratively pointless as one might expect, given the doll's beginning as a third-string scare-tactic in another film, so perhaps the movie's biggest surprise is that it isn't entirely pointless. In fact, there are several sequences here that are chilling, cleverly orchestrated, or both.

One imagines that the task of indirectly following up one of the best horror films of recent years would be a daunting one. Unless, of course, one imagines that the movie is just a quickie cash-grab, providing a chance for the filmmakers to slack off in the hopes that the groundwork laid by the previous film will do most of the heavy lifting. Whatever the motives behind the movie's existence might be, there's little doubt that director John R. Leonetti sees it as a challenge. From its eerie prologue until an unremarkable and gutless third act that only teases as genuine horror, the movie plays with an assortment of simple techniques and tricks to create a series of standalone scares that work pretty well.

Take the prologue. After recapping the story of the weird-looking doll as we know it (The roommates from the opening of The Conjuring explaining that the doll has been causing them problems), the movie jumps back several months and finds Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), a happily married couple expecting their first child. They're at church with their neighbors (Kerry O'Malley and Brian Howe), who reveal that their daughter has been missing for years.

In the middle of the night, the camera watches the neighbors through Mia and John's bedroom window. There's some commotion. The husband gets out of bed to look around the house, and the wife picks up the phone. There's a splattering of blood on the window (accompanied by a nail-on-a-chalkboard sting, which undermines the silence of the moment and which, in general, the movie relies on far too often), and another figure enters. The lights in the neighbors' bedroom go out as this new presence approaches the wife.

Leonetti captures the ensuing events in a one-take that follows Mia (who thinks the situation is suspicious enough that John should call the cops but, apparently, not enough that she calls them herself) out of the house, to the neighbors' yard, and back into the house until we realize that Mia has an unwelcome but expected visitor. The shot is efficiently staged, especially in its reveals, and displays a certain level of patience in allowing the dread to build instead of simply going for the easy startles. The movie's best scenes have a similar quality. There's one involving an unattended stovetop-popcorn container and a sewing machine that proceeds in a tightly edited, unbearable crescendo.

The point of the home intrusions, of course, is so that the creepy doll can become creepier. It's apparently used by one of the home invaders in an occult ritual to summon a demon or some silly thing like that. Mia has the baby and insists that the family moves out of the house. They end up in a spacious apartment. The doll, which John threw in the garbage when it started freaking out Mia, turns up in one of the moving boxes. Mia's visions of evil things and whatnot resume in the new space, while the doll turns an increasingly sickly green (The movie's tendency to insert close-ups of the doll's face becomes laughable). She gets some help from a bookstore owner played by Alfre Woodard, who gives some appreciable class to the movie as a grieving mother who believes Mia without question.

This apartment, with its lengthy halls and tight corners and collection of open windows, is ideal for long walks toward the unknown, sudden appearances (Mia has a talent for walking into a room and looking everywhere but the place where something is lurking), and close calls. There's a neat shot that uses the entire widescreen frame to simultaneously observe Mia going about her business in the kitchen and a record player that really wants to play a song, and there's also an effective long take inside an elevator that refuses to move from the dark basement, where a demonic figure stands in just the right amount of shadow.

The movie works in some of its individual moments, but the whole of Annabelle is missing a sense of momentum. Part of it is that Wallis plays scared when needed but appears too calm in between the obvious scares. Most of it, though, is that Gary Dauberman's screenplay merely goes through the motions, with scene after scene of redundant exposition as the tedious means to get from one setpiece to the next. The occasional flashes of inspiration can't quite save something so inherently pointless from itself.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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