Last year’s The Conjuring was an unexpected surprise for me; I saw it at an 8p showing the night before it came out in a theater that only had (at most) 20 other paying customers, and it genuinely scared all of us into submission. When the news broke that Annabelle, the doll featured in the film’s opening, would have a movie to itself with a fleshed-out backstory, I hoped and prayed for the resulting movie to be as good and intensely scary as its predecessor.
Well, one out of two ain’t bad. Annabelle definitely has its share of jumps and scares, and it will drive you into the seat of the person sitting next to you, but – well, my sister (who attended the screening with me) put it best: “It’s like I desperately wanted to dive into the deep end, but found myself in the shallows instead.” I couldn’t agree with her more – I went in wanting to like this movie, but by film’s end, I felt like there was so much potential for this film that remained untapped. Where The Conjuring had a compelling story, a decent script, nice character depth, rich themes, and terrific acting, Annabelle over-relies on its merciless frights and scares to carry the film, which it does – barely – with the remainder being the fault of Gary Dauberman’s half-baked screenplay. The actors do what they can with what they’re given, which isn’t much.
I mean, it’s an easy setup – wicked-looking doll causes havoc and chaos in the lives of some unwitting, poor family, right? Having seen the Child’s Play films and an episode of ”The X-Files” called “Chinga” where a possessed doll makes people do terrible things, I was pretty sure Annabelle was going to knock all of them out of the park, especially with the type of movie The Conjuring turned out to be. However, Annabelle eschews the evil-spirit-in-a-doll route, and instead makes it all about the demon controlling it. And by “controlling it,” I mean it literally – the doll does nothing outside of its normal operations, except when a shadowy demon is seen physically manhandling it for freak-out purposes.
So begets my biggest question about the film: why, then, must Annabelle be the film’s centerpiece? It’s obvious that the demon can control things and scare people without the doll being anywhere near the haunting site. Therefore, is the doll really necessary? In the film’s setup sequence, we see a man and a woman violently murder another couple, the screams from which prompt pregnant Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her husband John (Ward Horton) to call the police. Soon after, they’re attacked by the murderers and are saved by the police; while dealing with the man, the woman sneaks off into the nursery and does an offscreen ritual, complete with a creepy, blood-drawn rune on the wall and her blood running down into the eye of an object she’s holding: Annabelle.
Right – seriously, I almost started chanting “Ade due Damballa, give me the power, I beg of you” in the theater. Here, I guess, is the demon’s connection to the doll and its need to work in its proximity. As you may expect, spooky things start happening to Mia and John soon after – the TV starts going out, the sewing machine turns on by itself, and the rocking chair Annabelle’s sitting in gets awfully creaky when it’s rocking on its own. It comes to a head as Mia, nearing the end of her pregnancy, is brutally shoved around by an unseen force. Upon the birth of their child, they move from Santa Monica to Pasadena, as John’s got a hospital residency there; however, to quote Ian MacKaye from his days in Minor Threat, “I thought I had outrun it / when I crossed the tracks / I thought I had gotten away / WHEN IT TAPPED ME ON THE BACK.”
So begins the family’s descent into a maddening hell, where the bulk of the havoc is wrought upon Mia, as John pretty much exits stage left due to his job. He remains cheerful and optimistic while Mia is targeted ruthlessly by the demon, and soon enough, the baby is brought into the demon’s shenanigans. There’s a scene that made me, as a parent, nearly violently ill to my stomach that involved Mia’s frenzied attack on Annabelle; for some reason, that left a poor taste in my mouth that I can’t quite shake.
As scare films go, you can’t get much better than the non-stop intensity that director John R. Leonetti foists upon us. However, character depth takes a backseat to the scares, which results in having an emotionless, rather detached film. There’s not much to keep us hooked and rooted to the characters, which was abundant in this film’s predecessor. Pretty much every character’s purpose is shoveled upon us within minutes of us meeting them, and they’re not given much room to move outside of that, staying weirdly flat and one-dimensional. The script seems to have been written around the jump scares, which is all right for a film that makes you want to feel like you’re in one of those haunted houses on a beach boardwalk somewhere. For all of its script deficiencies, Annabelle delivers the frights you’re looking for this Halloween season.