Poorly Made "Annabelle" Good For A Few Scares

With its surplus of clumsy dialogue, stilted acting, and awkward camera work, quickie “Conjuring” prequel “Annabelle” will leave many moviegoers wanting. But as a vehicle for a handful of jump scares it’s better than most, leveraging its inexplicably low budget into a sizable serving of screams. Filmmaker James Wan has graduated from “Saw” and “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” to the “Fast And Furious” franchise, leaving longtime cinematographer John Leonetti to step in – to very mixed results.

Google “real life Annabelle doll” – the story is allegedly based on actual events – and you’ll find pictures of a very ordinary looking Raggedy Ann doll. It’s a textbook example of Twain’s famous assertion that “truth is stranger than fiction,” a stylization that handicaps the film from frame one. Who in the hell would buy a doll as bloodcurdling as the one depicted here? Dr. John Gordon (Ward Horton), that’s who. He buys one for his pregnant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis), and soon their house is overrun with violent hippies.

Let’s back up. It’s 1969 and satanic cults are all the rage in southern California. Wayward teen Annabelle Higgins returns home with her crazed lover to murder her parents and ends up terrorizing their next door neighbors, too – John and Mia Gordon. After a violent confrontation with police, the teen dies clutching Mia’s new doll, her blood spilling into the figurine’s eye socket. Voila – possessed doll! It’s as silly on screen as it sounds in writing, flying in the face of Alfred Hitchcock’s correct assertion that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

For the rest of the picture, the ostensibly newlywed couple is terrorized by this doll, with the pic’s lone convincing performance coming from an inanimate object. Horton gives an unfathomably unnatural performance while Wallis splits her screen time between holding a prosthetic baby bump like no actual pregnant woman ever has and running from a porcelain figurine that never actually comes to life on screen. Even worse, Leonetti spends half the film not knowing what to do with his camera, alternating between awkward wide shots and casual pans that don’t jibe with the movement of his characters.

But, against all odds, the film finds some huge scares in the form of a shadowy demonic presence that inhabits the titular doll. One scene in particular is among the year’s most chilling, expertly shot and choreographed amidst scenes that are anything but. That the pic’s jolts are more effective than that of “The Conjuring” is bizarre, but less so considering the potential in that film’s Annabelle-centric opening. In the hands of a better creative team, an all-Annabelle film might have been a grand slam. Here it’s a bloop single, narrowly avoiding a tag out on the basepaths.

Two strangely tangential subplots about a bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) and a priest (Tony Amendola) provide some unintentional laughs and more shaky performances. But it’s hard to shake the bevy of effectual scares, the sum of which nearly overcomes everything else wrong with the project. Richard Leonetti isn’t a particularly skilled helmer, nor is Gary Dauberman’s screenplay up to snuff, but since fans of modern day horror aren’t exactly drowning in quality material, they could do – and likely have done – much worse than “Annabelle.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 3, 2014
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: John Leonetti
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola
MPAA Rating: R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror)