Review: Decent Scares Keep 'Annabelle' from Being a Complete Waste
by Jeremy Kirk
October 3, 2014
It's hard to detect a good reason for Annabelle, the horror prequel to last year's terrifying The Conjuring, to exist. It's not as if the makers behind this latest film have anything groundbreaking to say about haunted house movies, creepy doll movies, or even possession movies despite the film dabbling in all three. Annabelle's creativity appears in its scares, something the film does quite well. But no matter how many times it makes you jump, regardless of the menacing tone it accomplishes in droves, Annabelle ends up being yet another standard, generic supernatural thriller that only succeeds in surface-level horror.
More than likely, it's the effective jolts that kept Annabelle in theaters, away from the dregs of direct-to-DVD status. It certainly wasn't the tale of a young couple, played by Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton, who fear for their perfect happiness in post-Manson Southern California. It's definitely not the woman's unborn child and the demonic force that has its sights locked on it. Alfre Woodard as Queen Explain-it-all isn't going to get the potential, teenaged demographic to the multiplexes in droves. Maybe they remember the eponymous doll as it lurked its way into scene-after-scene in the James Wan directed predecessor, The Conjuring, but I doubt it. If you're wondering where the doll, Annabelle, figures into the story, here we go: The wife collects dolls, the husband found this one, and a satanic cult invades their home and ends up transferring an evil soul into the doll, as you do. Proceed with ensuing nightmare.
Almost all of that reeks of a been-there-done-that attitude that pretty much permeates Annabelle from the opening scene. That opening scene was lifted right out of The Conjuring, so, yeah, been-there-done-that. The countless derivations of other, classic horror films that find their way into the film's screenplay, written by Gary Dauberman, wouldn't be such an issue if there wasn't so much potential hidden in the crevices.
The change in the air in 1969's Southern California just after the Manson Family Murders is a ripe tone for a horror film about supernatural terrors. Citizens in the area found themselves locking their doors at night for fear of additional intrusions and murders. Annabelle handles this with the subtlety of a Sam Raimi-esque seance. Literally the wife of the protagonist couple locks their front door and remarks that people are doing that now. Nice way of telling us rather than showing us.
But potential aside, practically every twist and turn in the screenplay calls to mind another horror film that handled the material much better. It's when Annabelle moves from Child's Play territory into Rosemary's Baby that it ends up going off the rails completely. Not even Wan, returning here as Producer only, is safe from this film's cinematic larceny, as scenes with the doll remind us of Dead Silence - if not The Conjuring - and later moments even have a little Insidious sprinkled in. Spoiler alert: Every film mentioned here is far better than Annabelle.
Whether it's the way Dauberman describes the horror set pieces or the way director John R. Leonetti visually executes what is on the page, Annabelle does deserve some credit for the handful of genuine scares it does deliver. Safe money goes to Leonetti on how well they come across, his handling of composition and sound creating more than a few terrifying images.
He lets the image sit on screen, not calling attention to it with fast editing or cheap musical chords being struck. The images rest before the audience, and what fun Annabelle generates has a lot to do with experiencing a crowd's delayed reaction to something they may not have all noticed at the same time. It's kind of the way Paranormal Activity found its audience, which makes the scares here a little derivative, but we'll forgive it based on results.
The less said about Annabelle outside its scares the better. Weak characters played by vanilla-bland actors, familiar environments that are intended to be creepy, and an empty Catholic-priest - played by Tony Amendola, not F. Murray Abraham - subplot that goes absolutely nowhere are just a few examples of the failed window dressing on display here. There are more specific flaws found throughout the film, but it's main drawback is in how dully paced it all is. Those sudden jolts of horrific excitement come in long-winded ebbs and sharp flows, but, at the very least, they keep Annabelle from being total rubbish. Here's hoping Annabelle's next adventure is equally scary but lot more original.
Jeremy's Rating: 4.5 out of 10
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