Rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror
Last year, The Conjuring turned out to be one of the surprise hits of the summer. While it hasn't done anything that other supernatural horror films haven't done in the past, and my personal opinion of Ed and Lorraine Warren gave me good reason to go in hating it, it still succeeded on the backs of very talented actors and solid old-school suspense courtesy of director James Wan. Sure enough, the moment that film's box-office returns came in there was talk of a sequel, and in the last eleven months, a spinoff based on the evil doll Annabelle, one of the more memorable "characters" from that film, was announced, produced, and shoved out the door to cash in on both brand recognition and the lucrative October season for horror movies.
And my God does it show.
I can tell you the exact moment when I realized that Annabelle was going to suck, and that was the very first scare sequence about fifteen minutes into the movie. It was poorly-handled from start to finish, mistaking loud noises for scares and completely failing to reel me in with any sort of tension. Later attempts at scares fell flat and occasionally had me giggling, the characters were dull cutouts played by actors who, save for the heroine's older black sidekick, couldn't be bothered to show any enthusiasm, and the sloppy ending simply pushed the film over the edge into out-and-out bad. This film is what happens when you take The Conjuring and remove the production values, style, tension, and overall polish that made it work as well as it did, leaving nothing more than a cynical, derivative, fifth-rate supernatural spook show with no heart or soul of its own, one that steals everything from other, better films without trying to remix any of them into something new.
The only good thing that can be said is that it's not drawing from the same wells that The Conjuring did. Whereas The Conjuring was heavily inspired by The Exorcist and Poltergeist, Annabelle is a film that really, really wants to be Rosemary's Baby. It's about a young couple in the late 1960s, John and Mia (an obvious reference to John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow), living in an apartment in the city (Pasadena instead of Manhattan) with their newborn daughter Leah. They've moved out of their home after an attack by a pair of Manson Family-esque cultists; they survived and the cultists both died, but a series of bizarre occurrences followed, culminating in a kitchen fire. It soon turns out that the cultists' attack was part of a ritual, one that imbued one of Mia's dolls with a demonic entity that's now after her little girl. As the hauntings grow more fierce, Mia turns to her priest and to her neighbor, an older black bookstore owner named Evelyn who seems to have experience with this sort of thing.
Having watched Rosemary's Baby this past Mother's Day (natch), I can tell you this for certain: Annabelle is no Rosemary's Baby. Sure, it really wants to look the part, lifting all manner of stylistic cues and minor plot points, but none of it adds up to anything. The director here has no sense of either Roman Polanski's or James Wan's sense of tension, simply rushing ahead through the frightening moments by throwing jump scares at the screen, while the non-scary parts of the film do little to build any sort of mood. We get a lot of darkness, but the scares can be seen coming from, literally, across the room. Whenever some bad juju's about to go down, the doll and the evil spirit controlling her immediately make their presence in the room painfully obvious to anybody with working eyes. Only one scene succeeded at building any sort of tension, and that was largely in spite of itself, as it soon devolved into a mess of flashing lights and jump cuts that reminded me of a bad haunted house.
None of the characters do much to get me involved in the meager scares either, mostly because they all come off looking bored at best. Only Alfre Woodard as Evelyn gave any effort in her performance, making her the best actor in the film by default, though that may be damning her with faint praise, as our heroine, Annabelle Wallis (clearly cast only because she's pretty and has the same name as the doll), plods her way through every scene she's in. Seriously, Wallis delivers one of the worst "horror heroine" performances I've seen in a really long time. Show some enthusiasm, lady! Her onscreen husband Ward Horton is somehow even worse, though, acting like a chunk of wet driftwood through his scenes and having no chemistry with Wallis that could allow me to buy into them as a married couple. Finally, at the end of our winding journey through low-rent acting and cheap frights, we get a cop-out of an ending that fails on at least three different levels that I can think of -- it lets John and Mia get out of a deep jam with no effort on their part, it comes with zero buildup before it suddenly happens, and it turns Evelyn, the only interesting character in the whole film, into a dull "magical negro" who exists only to save the protagonists. I was already checking my watch about 75 minutes into this movie, but that ending made me outright hate it.
Score: 1 out of 5
If you liked The Conjuring, then stay the hell away from Annabelle and don't let it disgrace your memories of that film. If you didn't like The Conjuring (and I know exactly who I'm referring to with that statement -- hint, hint), this film is so much worse that you can't even begin to imagine. I saw this for free, and I still wish I'd saved my free movie pass for Gone Girl or The Equalizer.