½*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+
starring Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard
screenplay by Gary Dauberman
directed by John R. Leonetti
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Some kind of as-yet-unclassified spin-off/rip-off hybrid, Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring's prologue that recycles said prologue for the purpose of reacquainting viewers with its title character, even though Annabelle is in fact an origin story. The Conjuring, of course, purports to be based on the actual exploits of the paranormal researchers fictionalized in Poltergeist, which was shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, brother of The Conjuring's DP John R. Leonetti, who moves into the director's chair with Annabelle, a movie that arguably owes less to The Conjuring (despite labouring to evoke it) than to the malicious clown doll from Poltergeist. That low-frequency thrum you sometimes hear on its soundtrack is Hollywood getting ready to fold in on itself.
The year is 1970, and John and Mia Gordon--actors Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis, respectively, resemble theme-park approximations of The Conjuring's Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga--are good Catholic suburbanites expecting their first child. After John gifts Mia with the eponymous Victorian doll, tragedy strikes: the neighbours' estranged daughter returns home newly-brainwashed by a Manson-type cult, killing her parents then continuing her rampage next door; the police take her and her sidekick down but not before she manages to wound Mia and perform Satanic rites on Annabelle. To purge themselves of bad juju, the couple toss Annabelle in the trash, but she reappears without explanation or alarm at their new place. Mia, having given birth to adorable baby Leah in the interim, decides to keep her this time. She's blonde, whaddya want?
Annabelle's problems are legion but let's start with the bait-and-switch hook that promises Child's Play or the third movement of Trilogy of Terror and instead delivers a shadowy gargoyle who doesn't even have the courtesy to possess Annabelle; he just puppeteers her when the mood strikes. By making Annabelle a conduit of evil instead of evil incarnate, the movie effectively rescinds its invitation to revel in the irrational but common, nay, endearingly human fear of dolls sprouting to life, supplementing it to abstraction--nullifying it, really--with a run-of-the-mill soul-snatching demon.1 The filmmakers do a lot of this doubling-down, for instance by including both a priest (Tony Amendola, the actor I always mistake for F. Murray Abraham) and an African-American sage (Alfre Woodard, too good for this shit and proving it) who deliver overlapping exposition, or by imperilling Mia with two hazards--stovetop popcorn and the bloodthirsty needle of a sewing machine--at the same time, in a sequence of parallel action so comically protracted that it's like watching snails race. John and Mia even relocate halfway through the film (downsizing to an apartment--a peculiar choice for new parents), from Santa Monica to Pasadena, as though there were no simpler way to introduce Woodard's occult-bookstore proprietor than to uproot the narrative and deliver it to her doorstep.
I suspect a lot of these complications seek to conceal the underpopulated, largely-unqualified cast--Horton's performance, in particular, generates stink lines around it--and budget production values. It's often difficult to believe that Annabelle is part of a major-studio franchise and not, say, a dtv cash-in on the success of The Conjuring from Asylum. (How long the camera lingers on a white bag of Doritos, as if to say, "There's your period detail!"2) There is the odd touch that works--I'm fond of a hastily-abandoned creeping-zoom aesthetic that builds dread at the outset, as well as an early jump-scare that shocked me out of complacency like the hospital attack in the underestimated Exorcist III3--but the only actively interesting thing about Annabelle is that it appears to be set in the past mainly to strip away the heroine's agency, with John, a med student, constantly cowing Mia by blaming her dawning awareness of malevolent forces on feminine body chemistry. ("John" and "Mia" of course jokily refer to the stars of Rosemary's Baby.) Maybe it's time to retire this trope, which used to have some political fire behind it but now comes across as historically smug, especially in a picture that climaxes with its only black character sacrificing herself to save a stupid white lady.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Annabelle docks on Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that is relatively cinematic, although it takes on the harsh gloss of video during intense fluctuations in light, and the limitations of digital cinematography reveal themselves in afterimage trails during the dimmest parts of the finale. Visible shadow detail demonstrates strong dynamic range, and colours retain their pop in darkened interiors, though skin tones have a pinkish cast that isn't always flattering. Mild video noise is persistent yet never bothersome. In and of itself, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is not subtle and eventually desensitizing (the mix is relentless in its Mickey Mouse-ing of every boo! with a soundtrack jolt), but it does deliver rip-snorting bass, along with a lamentably crisp dialogue channel.
HD extras consist of four behind-the-scenes docs and 20 minutes' worth of deleted scenes. "The Curse of Annabelle" (6 mins.) predictably finds the producers making specious "based on a true story" claims and crediting the supernatural with a rash of on-set accidents. My favourite part is when Horton establishes his bona fides by saying he read "parts" of Ed and Lorraine Warren's The Demonologist. The nonsensically-titled "Bloody Tears of Possession" (6 mins.) is all about the staging and shooting of the home-invasion sequence, filmed in one take with the help of a gizmo called the MōVI, while "Dolls of the Demon" (4 mins.) looks at the process of defacing the other dolls in Leah's nursery. (Some of them are still pretty freaky in the cold light of day.) Lastly, "A Demonic Process" (5 mins.) tackles KNB's creation of the film's demon, played by composer Joseph Bishara. One of the makeup guys recites Leonetti's manifesto for the creature--"He comes out of the darkness but is of the darkness"--with an unmistakable hint of mockery.
As for those elisions, they feature a character entirely elided from the final cut (though confusingly mentioned in the making-of material), the Gordons' hobo-chic landlord Fuller, whose basic function is to encroach on Mia's space and bring out the classist in her. There's an incredibly moronic sequence where Mia runs a bath for the baby that paranormally reaches boiling point, and somehow she doesn't notice until she's dipped her fingers in it. Then Fuller snarks that she musta got her taps mixed up, and Asaad Kalada's director's credit appears as the "One Day at a Time" theme starts playing. (If only.) HiDef trailers for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and Inherent Vice cue up on spin-up; DVD and Ultraviolet copies of Annabelle are bundled with the BD.
1. "I was the one who pushed for that," director Leonetti says in a featurette on the Blu-ray, "knowing the resonance of fright that a demon presence can make just beyond a doll." Don't ask him to design a submarine--he might add screen doors.
2. If nothing else, Annabelle gave me a new appreciation for all the period clutter in Richard Kelly's The Box.
3. It may even be a tip of the cap, although I suspect there's a less oblique homage to The Exorcist in the styling of actor Eric Laden, who with a cop's moustache bears an uncanny resemblance to Lee J. Cobb's Lt. Kinderman.