After watching Annabelle, the newest horror film from producer James Wan (who directed The Conjuring, from which the film is spun off), the freakiest part was finding out the lead actress’s name is Annabelle. I jest, but in all seriousness, with the series of Saw and Insidious films under his belt, Wan has found his niche when it comes to delivering the same story in different packaging, having gone from provocative innovation (such as the reveal of Jigsaw rising up off the bathroom floor) to tried-and-true generalities. I don’t fault him for going back to the well of good fortune to spin a yarn about something as freaky as Annabelle; the least he could have done was try and give it an ounce of originality.
Annabelle takes place during an undisclosed year sometime in the seventies where we meet Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), a loving couple who are about to have a baby. John is a med student about to start his residency, which has kept him relatively absent and has put a strain on the marriage. If that wasn’t enough, after John goes to investigate a possible attack on his neighbors (when has it ever been okay for someone to go into another person’s house in the middle of the night because they think something has happened?), Mia is stabbed in the belly by the neighbor’s psychotic daughter’s boyfriend.
We’ll learn later that this was most likely an attempt to sacrifice an innocent to complete the ritual of raising a demon, but because it fails, the daughter, Annabelle, ends up slitting her throat with John’s most recent gift to Mia — a Victorian porcelain doll — sitting in her lap. With a blood-stained demonic symbol on the wall and a tiny drop of blood that seeps into the doll’s eye socket, Annabelle’s soul becomes attached to it, along with whatever demonic presence they were seeking to conjure up.
Unlike The Conjuring (where Annabelle first made her chilling debut), Annabelle isn’t based on true accounts, though the doll itself (which is actually an old Raggedy-Ann doll) is kept protected by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators and spiritual psychics portrayed in The Conjuring by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. According to the first few minutes of Annabelle, the first time Ed and Lorraine encountered the doll was when they were contacted by a group of teens after having received the doll as a gift. They don’t know where it came from, or what type of spirit is connected with the doll, only that strange occurrences have happened since they received it. Part of me would have liked to have seen Wilson and Farmiga reprise their roles as Ed and Lorraine, but that particular story may not have had much of an impact, and since they weren’t aware of how the spirit was originally attached to the doll, having them part of the movie would have been disingenuous.
Fictionalizing the possible history of the doll (and why it has been locked up for over thirty years) lends itself to the creation of a very creative and freaky tale, one limited only by the size of the writer’s imaginations, which, it turns out, was severely lacking. Hardly any of the events are all that interesting to begin with, so when you add in dialogue with absolutely no subtext, thinly drawn relationships (especially between Mia and a Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), a book store owner that weasels her way into Mia’s life without any logical reason to do so), and, as with most mainstream modern horror films, fill it from top to bottom with a variety of jump scares that pretend to be real horror when in fact they’re nothing more than simple tricks, it’s no wonder you get a glut of sleepwalking actors delivering lines as if it’s the table read of a script in its first draft.
That might be a bit harsh; it’s not as if the acting is completely horrid — in relation to the overall majority of the horror films, all of the actors are quite capable and, like Tony Amendola (who plays Mia and John’s compassionate priest), some have been around a long while. However, in recent years, less-than-stellar acting in a horror film has been going the way of kitsch B-movie horror films that are so bad they’re good (Critters, I’m looking at you!), so when one comes along that doesn’t have that gleefully mocking vibe, audiences will generally detach and trying to believe in the victims plight becomes unbearable.
Especially when they act so inanely inattentive. Whether it’s the doll moving from a shelf to a rocking chair, or a door that keeps opening, the characters don’t ever question it. I’d think that when a bag of Jiffy-Pop nearly burns down the kitchen, you’d wonder how the stove turned on in the first place. Or when a doll shows up in a moving box after it was tossed in the trash — maybe you’d think twice about putting it back on the shelf. The banality of the responses to these phenomenon make it much harder to believe the characters and empathize with what’s happening to them. I mean, would it have killed the filmmakers to add one quick scene where John tries to fix the bedroom door hinge to keep the door from popping open?
Despite that, there are a couple of decently genuine scares. The most prevalent scene that gave me hope for the latter half of the film was one in which Mia tries to run from the shadowy demon via an elevator that doesn’t ever move. No matter how many times she pushes the button, the doors always open on the floor she’s trying to escape. Her only exit is the stairwell, a frightening climb that would give anyone the chills. The entire sequence invokes an innate fear of being trapped and followed by something sinister, jacking up the tension from a mild 2 (where most of the film resides), to an 11.
Unfortunately, that promise is dashed with a double fake-out in the final act that spins the climax from a traumatizing hell to a generically bland copycat. I understand the meaning for why the movie ended the way it did, but by backing off of one of the more incredibly shocking moments of horror, the filmmakers hinder themselves from truly delivering on the promise of true evil. Had they followed through on that one small idea, it would have given so much more depth to the demon attached to the doll and would have given a much more valid reason for why it’s so dangerous. Instead, it feels as if they gave into the pressure of political correctness and provided a more saturated Mike Myers-style ending that felt as flat as the rest of the movie.
Once upon a time, horror films had the guts to go the distance with the curiosity of the extreme. But nowadays, they all seem to be running on the same treadmill for the sake of making a quick buck. It’s a formula that works, though, and Annabelle will no doubt prosper despite falling victim to the lack of innovation.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include The Judge, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Dracula Untold. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.