As the second film in THE CONJURING series/universe, 2014’s ANNABELLE serves as a prequel to James Wan’s 2013 horror flick and the kickoff of its very own series/universe. Because expanded universes are all the rage, ANNABELLE makes a certain degree of sense.
Horror movies are, naturally, all about exploiting fears. In the case of ANNABELLE, the conceit is a doll that does not look right. That doll, which ostensibly completes a set, is a channel for examining a number of other fears. Motherhood, murderous cults and isolation in a suburban setting are among those anxieties, although John R. Leonetti’s picture doesn’t really capitalize on its ambitions.
John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first child. Mia loves dolls, so John presents her with the creepy titular figure to complete her collection. But after a horrifying home invasion, the doll takes on new meaning and a presence seems to terrorize Mia – even after they move to Pasadena and attempt to trash the toy.
There are too many complications in ANNABELLE and the plot swings around to include tales of devil worship and the demonic. As with most modern horror films, refinement and uncertainty are not part of the equation. The Gary Dauberman screenplay is brimming with details and resonant characterizations, like a helpful priest (Tony Amendola) and a more helpful bookseller (Alfre Woodard).
ANNABELLE’s setup is chilling to a certain degree and the home invasion is befittingly disturbing, especially as James Kniest lenses it from Mia and John’s bedroom. The volatility of the killers and their wild-ass methods is probably the most dreadful aspect of the entire movie.
And the tension does stick around for a while. When John heads out for a work event, Mia is left home alone and tries to sate her poorly-obscured unease by sewing or submerging herself in television. The camera pans around because something is positively going to happen. But the tension dissolves when, true to form, what does happen is overenthusiastic and plain.
ANNABELLE is at its best when it lingers. While the argument can certainly be made that Kniest’s lens parks itself too often, there is virtue in letting the action unfold in the background and there is something alarming about a swishing figure busying itself in the margins while Mia goes about her routine.
But for all the potential and for all the goodwill generated by honest tension, ANNABELLE buries itself and sticks to the lukewarm bread and butter of reaction frights and obvious imagery. That makes most of this movie rather hilarious and renders the titular doll rather irrelevant.