Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola
Rated R for Intense Sequences of Disturbing Violence and Terror
There are four things every horror movie must have: a threatening atmosphere, a sense of rhythm and pacing, identifiable characters, and a plot that establishes a set of rules about what can and cannot happen...and follows them. These are absolute and non-negotiable. No horror movie can succeed without them. "Annabelle," the prequel in name only to last year's surprise hit "The Conjuring," only succeeds in one area. I bought into the world that the filmmakers established and believed that everything that happened was plausible in it. Unfortunately, more is needed. The film doesn't have a lot of atmosphere, is poorly paced and the characters are boring.
The film opens with a short clip of four girls being interviewed the Warrens (it's from the original film). The clip is a mistake; it's inclusion is only to provide a tenuous link to "The Conjuring" so the studio can market it as a prequel.
Sorry, I'm getting on a rant. Anyway, the film is about Mia (Wallis) and John Gordon (Horton). They are squeaky clean, church-going average Americans living in California. Mia is heavily pregnant and John is in medical school. Mia collects vintage dolls, and as a surprise, John presents her with a rare Annabelle doll. That's when strange things start happening; she thinks she hears a murder next door and is soon attacked herself. Without giving anything away, I will say that she asks John to throw the doll away, but it's not going to be that easy to get rid of this nasty piece of work. The terror only escalates to the point where she and her child are threatened by a demon.
The story isn't terribly interesting, but the pitch lines for horror movies rarely are. I mean, a masked man stalking a bunch of teenage girls ("Halloween") doesn't sound any scarier than a group of girls attacked by monsters in a cave ("The Descent"). It's how the film is made that makes it scary. Sadly, while Carpenter (in the case of his 1978 classic) and Marshall knew what they were doing, the same cannot be said about John R. Leonetti, a frequent cinematographer for James Wan (the director of "The Conjuring," "Insidious" and its unfortunate sequel, and "Dead Silence"). Little of Wan's talent for scaring the hell out of his audience has rubbed off on him. There are a few decent shocks, but that's it.
What's frustrating about "Annabelle" is that it is easy to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Directing a good horror film requires patience. Even an action-oriented one like "The Descent" spent half the movie slowly building to the violence-and-blood-soaked second half. That doesn't happen here. The escalating tension that is essential for every horror movie is missing. Leonetti goes full-speed from frame one, and that never works (even "Aliens" set the stage and had a build-up before James Cameron pulled out all the stops).
The acting certainly doesn't help matters either. Granted, the horror genre isn't known for its Oscar-related performances, but hiring actors who have a scintilla of ability could only have helped things. But Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton display more wood than in any movie this year. They're not terrible, but they're not very good either. 80's Broadway mainstay Tony Amendola, who plays a sympathetic priest, is also stiff as well. Only Alfre Woodard, playing the obligatory minority who knows everything about (or at least believes in) the supernatural, manages to be moderately convincing, but she's definitely not trying. Woodard just wants a paycheck, and it shows. Hey, even respected actors gotta eat!
"Annabelle" isn't completely devoid of scares. For all his flaws, Leonetti shows skill when it comes to creating effective shocks, and the standout scene (it takes place in an attic) is moderately creepy (even though it could, and should, have been better).
Unless you've got your heart set on seeing this movie, I'd suggest skipping it and watching something else. Try "The Innkeepers," a ghost story that surprisingly few people have heard of. It's the scariest movie of its ilk that I've seen.