Prepare for haunted horror cliches centred on a possessed porcelain plaything.
Annabelle opens with unnecessary intertitles, advising that dolls are liked by children and collectors, and used in occult rituals. Next, the spin-off from The Conjuring links to its predecessor, revisiting that feature's introductory snippet of three housemates quivering in fear over a frightening figurine. So far, so standard — and so it continues in the same obvious, uninteresting vein. The scene is set for haunted horror cliches centred on a possessed porcelain plaything, sans punch or personality.
A year prior, doctor-in-training John (Ward Horton) bought it to complete the antique collection of his pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis). When murderous satanic cultists break into their Santa Monica home, it is the doll they covet, leaving it splattered in blood. Strange things soon start happening around the house, but moving to a Pasadena apartment doesn't solve their problems. Even throwing Annabelle away proves pointless, while seeking the assistance of a friendly bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) and local priest (Tony Amendola) just immerses others in their supernatural troubles.
As things go bump in the night, lights flicker and doors slam, Annabelle doesn't deviate from run-of-the-mill scares, employing the same techniques as its predecessor. What's missing is subtlety and suspense, with everything telegraphed so far in advance that eliciting genuine jumps becomes impossible. The usual inexplicably moving items are handled well enough, though the same can't be said for cheap-looking CGI as demonic forces manifest. Lingering shots of the titular toy benefit from slow panning and zooming; however, simply staring at something isn't particularly terrifying.
The Conjuring isn't the only film cinematographer-turned-director John R. Leonetti unsuccessfully attempts to imitate — and sadly, it isn't Child's Play's off-kilter chaos he evokes, either. Though the movie's central mother gives birth early, the idea of her home alone, afraid and exercising her maternal protective instincts recalls Rosemary's Baby, albeit dulled and dumbed down, not to mention plagued by highly questionable character decisions. When Annabelle resurfaces from the trash, wouldn't disposing of her again be the clear option? Sure, the feature would be over, but so would its patchy pastiche of poorly rendered tropes.
Leads Horton and Wallis do little to lift B-movie writer Gary Dauberman's script, their wooden reading of equally stilted dialogue giving the film a TV movie-of-the-week flavour. As they talk about ignoring the bizarre occurrences because they've moved their clothes, furniture and good memories to their new apartment and should keep playing happy families, it's hard not to laugh, particularly with nothing remotely spooky offered as distraction.
Making a bad horror film is forgivable; making a bland one, less so. Where Annabelle best succeeds is in enthusing audiences for next year's The Conjuring sequel, hopefully a blatant departure from this and the proper follow-up the series deserves.
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