By Kyle G. King. A creepy looking doll can get you pretty far in the horror genre. For instance, take a look at the Child’s Play franchise, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year with its sixth film of the series, The Curse of Chucky. But horror has changed tremendously since that series’ genesis in 1988; it has become an exceedingly competitive and flooded market, both domestically and internationally. The era of “scary guy with a mask chases dimwitted teenagers” is regrettably not quite dead yet, but with new technology available for filmmakers and old scare tactics becoming all too predictable for audiences, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger and all the other figurative old dogs really need to start coming up with some new tricks in order to properly awe us.
James Wan pleased a lot of movie-goers this past year with his horror tale about renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring. He passes a producer’s nod and the granted universe of The Conjuring to its cinematographer John R. Leonetti to direct Annabelle, released last week. Remember that creepy doll at the beginning of The Conjuring? Ever wonder what her deal was? Well, Wan and Lonetti sure did, and they devoted a modest $7 million to exploring it.
John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) are reaching for the 1960s American dream in suburban, sunny California. They have whimsical neighbors next door, a well funded church nearby, and John is studying to become a doctor. The only thing missing will soon be attained: a child of their very own, and Mia is pregnant with their first. The baby and the family will be well cared for, and all seems perfectly planned and hopeful in the lives of this sacred union. That is, until a satanic cult breaks in and gets involved.
John and Mia’s false sense of security is turned upside down one night with a double homicide of their neighbors next door. The satanic pair responsible for the killings meander to the Gordon’s home to bleed and die all over the their belongings, mainly John’s latest gift to his wife, the antique Annabelle doll she had been pining for. And with her last dying act, the suicidal satanist drips her blood right into the doll’s open eye. (The nerve.)
Well, as you can imagine that doesn’t sit calmly with the doll or the Gordons, and peculiar things start happening: Mia is stuck at home due to an injury sustained during the break-in, while John is constantly away at work. In the traditional escalation of movie paranormality, television sets, stove tops, and other electronics work independently and without supervision. Not explicit paranormal activity to raise suspicion really, but events curious enough of which to take note and raise an eyebrow. All might be dismissible until a fire starts and burns up their kitchen (John doesn’t clear off an errant stove-top popcorn and “something” turns the burners on, so it overcooks to the point of combustion. Remember this suspense tool from the first scene of Scream?) When John finally catches up with his wife at the hospital, he finds that he is officially a father. A happy moment is soon turned into an ominous one when Mia announces she doesn’t want to raise their newborn child in their new home and feels it’s time to move.
Nobody (save for the film’s camera operator and its editor) seems to pay attention to the Annabelle doll for a while, until John and Mia start packing for the move. Finally it dawns on them to get rid of the object directly tying them to the traumatic event that rocked their lives not so long ago. In a scene directly out of the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll”, John puts the doll in the trash can and seals the lid, only to have it show up when they are unpacking in their new home. (“My name’s Talking Tina and I’m going to kill you.”) And yet it’s an event that doesn’t alarm anyone and somehow it seemingly gets rationalized by all involved.
The new home is not quite their previous suburban dream. It’s a middle apartment in a sizable residential complex, but it’s closer to John’s new job and they’re getting by just fine, eager to put the tragic events far in their rearview mirror and raise baby Leah in a re-energized environment. But the Annabelle doll and the satanic spirits within her can’t let things lay. They wreak further and less rational havoc on the family, mostly upon Mia and Leah. John works a lot, remember, and isn’t around to witness or validate his wife’s claims, which more and more suggest the idea that Mia is simply going insane due to all the pressures of motherhood and tragedy.
Mia seeks help from her local priest, the all knowing Father Perez (Tony Amendola), and also finds some wisdom in a tokenized minority, local bookshop worker Evelyn (Alfre Woodard). Between the three of them, they deduct that the Annabelle doll and the cult are after the innocent soul of baby Leah. Demons, spirits, and self-shutting doors all plot against the sanity of Mia and the safety of baby Leah.
Annabelle is swimming in imagery and motifs that seem to be borrowed from every hit horror movie of the past twenty-five years: Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and even The Exorcist, when the church is involved occasionally. Leonetti shows that he has done his homework and watched all the classics, but fails to understand what makes them richly terrifying. What he has instead is a collection of peek-a-boo gags and empty themes that fall away by the third act once it’s time for answers.
Annabelle gives you trite dialogue and plot devices that are inconsistent even within itself. The idea of an “innocent soul” is recalculated to “just any old soul will do.” It’s a movie we’ve all seen before, and nobody was really asking for this, except studio executives who don’t know any better and their nagging, wanting wallets. If you’re looking for something scary to watch this Halloween, skip Annabelle and watch one of the classics that it aims to mimic instead.