There’s maybe an interesting psychological thriller at the heart of Annabelle, wherein the main character—a women in her early twenties with a baby’s room full of the old dolls she’s collected over the years—shakes off the past and begins resenting the shrine she’s built in honor of her own immaturity. That’d certainly be apt considering the similar questions asked by The Lego Movie re: collecting vs. playing. But Annabelle is a movie about a spooky chunk of plastic and the white people who mumble in fear of it. It would be easy to call it the dullest horror film of the year, but at a certain point, I had to laugh at how every new scene involving the central couple seemed to get quieter, draw further inward and test my ability to care for them. It’s almost as if the real craft of the film was put behind a dare to see how deeply uninteresting the writers, directors and actors could render these two cyphers before the audience prays for their deaths at the porcelain hands of an immobile doll.
Annabelle is, of course, a prequel to last year’s The Conjuring, a film with an infinitely better handle on its characters and the set pieces created to freak them the fuck out. But really, the prequel nature of the story ends early when two Manson Family-types go on a suburban spree, killing Mia and John’s (the aforementioned white people) neighbors before turning their “hopped up” aggression on them. The hippies die, bleeding their rancid, devil-conjuring blood into the eyeball of Mia’s newest doll,* thus infecting it with its own devilishness. That is, in fact, all of the backstory we require. But the film has another 70 minutes to fill to qualify for the Oscars (fingers crossed for a Best Supporting Doll nod), so a mystery for which the audience already has all of the answers gets streeeeeeetched to the breaking point, occasionally spicing things up with a slamming door.
To be fair, there’s one sequence that works particularly well. It happens one night when Mia takes the elevator down to the basement and sees…something. She runs back to the elevator and what seems like a simple escape becomes torturous (in a good way, finally) when the elevator stalls and the doors open and close on the same inky-black hallway over and over again. It’s a rare example of the film’s restraint working in its favor and if there’d been another four or five scenes just like it, this would be a completely different review.
But there aren’t. And this isn’t. For the majority of the running time, this feels like a bottle episode of an anthology horror show, meant to save money for the next installment by keeping the cast to a maximum of five people or so. Alfre Woodard plays a bookstore owner with her own past experiences in the occult (prequel prequel?) and in case it even needs to be said, she’s the best actor by a wide margin. Of course, her decades of professional acting experience are spent intoning cliched nonsense about dead kids, demonic spirits, etc. It’s a tasteless porridge of sounds that oozes from her (and everyone else’s) mouth. Her fine acting, sadly, means nothing in the face of this crap.
Where the hell was the brain trust from The Conjuring? Why wasn’t more care given over to the first attempt at a proposed series of films? James Wan certainly had his hands full, but with all of the franchise potential expected from The Warrens’ “basement of bad vibes,” someone should’ve been shepherding this project to do more than rip off a nearly 40-year-old jump scare from Mario Bava’s Shock. If you have to see a horror film in the theater this October, I understand, but Annabelle isn’t a king-size Snickers in your candy bucket, it’s an off-brand toothbrush.
*The single-best line in the film is when John, after surprising his wife with the Annabelle doll, tells her they’ll be a little light with the rent for the next couple of months. The next couple of months!