By Shane M. Dallmann
While “Annabelle” the doll had nothing to do with the real-life events that inspired THE CONJURING, it WAS in the safekeeping of the real-life investigators (the Warrens) after they wrapped up an unrelated case, and could you really expect James Wan to leave a creepy doll alone? Of course Annabelle had to make her presence known, and she certainly didn’t hurt either the reputation or the amazing box-office take of the latter. Speaking of which, while an actual “sequel” was impractical in the case of THE CONJURING, a follow-up of some sort was pretty much mandated. And while Wan passed up the director’s chair for the not-really-a prequel ANNABELLE (which involves none of the same characters), he entrusted the follow-up to his proven protege John R. Leonetti (no, I never saw MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION or THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2), but Leonetti served efficiently on many a Wan production (as well as helming plenty of contemporary television, including the SLEEPY HOLLOW series) and had more than sufficient chops to handle this project.
Okay, it’s 1970. Charles Manson is all over the news and suburbanites are starting to lock their doors. Just beginning his medical residency is John Gordon (hmm… “Dr. Gordon?” I think I SAW this name somewhere else in Wan’s filmography), who makes up for an insensitive remark he makes to his pregnant wife Mia (the coincidentally-named Annabelle Wallis) by giving her her “baby” present early. Just what the delicate young lady needs–a creepy, grinning DOLL! Okay, okay. She’s a doll fanatic, this one completes a beloved collection, it really IS just what she wanted, and it’s not SUPPOSED to be quite so creepy from the get-go as it hasn’t even been possessed yet. The awkward thing is that the true-life doll isn’t nearly as evil-looking as the movie doll, regardless of its reputation. So even though the doll isn’t MEANT to be scary (yet), everyone watching ANNABELLE is repressing chortles at this ghastly gift.
Then the movie abruptly shuts everybody up with a startling, brutal and genuinely frightening extended sequence that the doll did absolutely nothing to instigate. The tone is truly set for the rest of the film as we learn just what evil eventually DID get transferred to the doll, and the increasingly dangerous manifestations of said evil inspire plenty of sympathy and fear for both Mia and her baby (both before and after she arrives). Meanwhile, a change of scenery (yes, to one of those amazing only-in-the-movies luxury apartments that no first-year resident could possibly afford) does nothing to prevent the doll from tagging along (for the record, “Annabelle” is the spirit that possesses the doll–the doll itself has no name that I can recall, but just like “Frankenstein,” she’s stuck with that name like it or not).
A full-length feature film consisting of nothing but a doll scaring people? Well, if you’ve got Brad Dourif voicing it, that’s one thing, but most such projects tax the patience (DOLLY DEAREST springs unbidden to mind). So most wisely, ANNABELLE does NOT rely unduly on the actual toy and finds other ways to create suspense and horror, and we’re given the support of some fine supporting performers even if they’re in rather over-familiar roles (Tony Amendola is the priest who effortlessly believes in demons and immediately tries to help the family; and Alfre Woodard is the kindly old woman who runs the antique bookstore and takes an immediate fondness to baby Lia). Quietly disturbing moments (ominous crayon drawings supplied by the young children of the Gordon’s fellow tenants–or are they?) alternate with noisy shocks, most of which work. Oh, and Leonetti takes one HUGE page from the Wan playbook in the form of a blatant Mario Bava moment… of course, as was the case with BEYOND THE DOOR II, this chair-jumper WOULD have worked better had the powers that be not already blown it in all of the trailers…
ANNABELLE may not be quite up there with THE CONJURING, and I’m not about to play the “true story” game with it, either (for the record, I dreamed up a far more frightening final movement than the movie actually delivered). It’s strictly formula but it’s more than competently executed–a most appropriate Halloween release, all in all.