Here’s a lesson in basic box office science: horror movies make money. When horror movies make money, they tend to beget horror movie sequels and prequels, hence the mercifully defunct Saw series’ long-overstayed welcome. So the rare horror movie that’s both well-made and self-contained should be cherished. There’s something to be said for horror that stands alone and doesn’t demand a follow up, which is why last year’s The Conjuring is such a gem. It’s as clear an example of a one-off as any; how can the travails of the Perron family be split into a multi-part narrative?
Apparently by according a feature film’s worth of fresh content to one of its most minor elements. Fast forward to now, and we’re staring down the barrel of Annabelle, the origin story of the possessed doll that serves as the fixture of The Conjuring’s opening sequence. Remember: science! Massive worldwide grosses all but assured the film’s existence, so maybe it’s best to just take the bad with the good.
Too bad the former so roundly outweighs the latter. A recap: The Conjuring briefly acquainted us with Annabelle, a scuffed-up porcelain moppet that houses a truly malevolent spirit. In Annabelle, she’s a harmless indulgence purchased by loving, occasionally condescending husband John (Ward Horton) for his pregnant, hormonal wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis), at least until a pair of deranged Manson surrogates break into their home. The scuffle ends poorly for the cultist, but one of them latches her essence onto the doll before passing, and thus commences a campaign of terror against the hapless Mia.
It’d take real effort to produce a more useless horror spin-off than Annabelle; this is a movie that’s satisfied with repeatedly winking and nodding at its progenitor without bothering to find its own reason for being. Worse, the film raises more logical questions than it can successfully answer, and if there’s one sure way to harsh a viewer’s horror-movie buzz, it’s by broaching rationality in a story about an evil toy. No one wants to wonder why the toy is allowed to stick around after a devil-worshipping weirdo bleeds all over it. They want to stew in anxiety over whatever nefarious thing the toy might do next.
But Annabelle’s chief problem is that it’s dull, which horror movies should never be. They should make you squeal and twitch in your seat. They should make you fall asleep at night with the light on and a baseball bat by your nightstand. At the very least, they should be dramatic, but Annabelle misses as many opportunities for human drama as it does for fright. In fairness, there are a limited number of ways in which a demonic doll can be frightening, particularly when said doll looks like it was made in Evil Co.’s nightmare factory, on an assembly line manned by Satanists. We’re numbed to the film’s basic conceit from the word go, and its scare tactics don’t work by consequence.
The rest of the film is possession-by-numbers, too, so if you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, Annabelle’s bag of tricks feels rote. Electronic devices turn themselves on, stoves fire up on their own, and eventually Mia begins seeing spirits nearly every which way she looks. All the while, no one believes her, except for Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), the film’s resident believer in all things hocus pocus, and Mia’s spiritual advisor, Father Perez (Tony Amendola). The “hysterical woman” motif is outdated, and director John R. Leonetti knows it; his real through-line is about a matter of choice. Early on, Mia makes John swear to save the baby over her in the event of childbirth complications. It’s an interesting theme, and one the film flirts with carrying out to its inevitable conclusion until it blatantly chickens out of respecting its driving thesis.
Ultimately it’s the things Annabelle gets right that prove more frustrating than the things it gets wrong. Leonetti shows he has the requisite skill for orchestrating creative horror beats, and if he steers his film away from the climax it deserves, he at least has ideas kicking around in his head to explore through a genre lens (plus a neat bit of monster design, revealed in the second act). There may be too many heavies here, and the script lacks real fear, but in the end, it’s the realization that at least some thought went into Annabelle that makes it such a disappointment.