About the best thing that you can say of this latest horror movie about a demonic doll is that it’s not part of the dreadful “Chucky” series. That at least saves us from the string of awful smart-aleck remarks the dolls in that series regularly deliver. The possessed wooden specimen in “Annabelle” is mercifully mute; in fact, she barely even moves on her own, one scene apart. Unfortunately, the humans around her are little more animated than she is; even when they’re running, they come across as stiff and cardboardy.
The picture is a prequel of sorts to “The Conjuring,” last year’s surprise hit exorcism tale directed by James Wan and featuring a cast that was far more starry than usual in such fare. It’s directed not by Wan but by cinematographer John R. Leonetti, whose last directorial effort was “The Butterfly Effect 2” back in 2006, and apart from Alfre Woodard, the cast is populated by little-known names. And the script isn’t by Chad and Carey Hayes, who wrote “The Conjuring,” but by feature neophyte Gary Dauberman. In short, “Annabelle” does not field the first team.
The plot is extraordinarily simple. In a prologue that hearkens back to “The Conjuring,” some girls are shown talking about their experience with Annabelle, the doll that was so dangerous it was encased under lock and key in the home of the paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Dauberman then takes us back to 1969, when the doll was a perfectly ordinary mannequin bought as a gift for pregnant young housewife Mia (Annabelle Wallis) by her doting husband John (Ward Horton), an internist. All seems fine until their next-door neighbors are attacked and killed by their daughter Sharon (Kerry O’Malley) and her husband, a couple of crazed Satanists. The murderous duo invade John and Mia’s place as well, but they die in the attempt; the girl, who slashes her own throat, bequeaths the demon that possessed her to Annabelle.
From this point the movie becomes a sort of catch-all of horror movie clichés, an episodic anything-goes grab bag filled with creaky doors, machines that turn on of their own volition, rocking chairs that need no propulsion to start moving, lights that go on and off, various bumps in the night and occasional spectral appearances by that deceased deranged girl. (Even a skillet of stove-top popcorn—a nifty period detail—becomes the tool of demonic activity.) In their determination to stuff in as many gotcha moments as possible, Leonetti and Dauberman sometimes fail to maximize their effect—an episode centered on an elevator that refuses to leave a menacing basement has potential but falls flat because of poor staging, and another involving two children who draw ghoulishly prophetic pictures goes absolutely nowhere. (John says that they’ll talk to the kids’ parents, but there’s no follow-up to that.)
And then there’s Annabelle, who’s thrown away at one point only to mysteriously reappear in a box, shifts her pose from time to time and takes a special interest in the couple’s new-born daughter Leah. As the poltergeist-like phenomena grow increasingly scary, Mia seeks advice from kindly local bookseller Evelyn (Woodard), who can empathize because she lost her own daughter in an auto accident, while John turns to their parish priest Father Perez *Tony Amendola), who’s also willing to take risks to assist the couple. You know full well that these two are introduced because every horror movie needs a full quota of victims for the scare sequences. And you also know that the ultimate aim of every demon is to take possession of a human soul. The only question is whose.
It has to be said that Leonetti stages the set-pieces nicely, especially considering that he was obviously working under severe budgetary limitations. Teaming with cinematographer James Kniest, he makes good use of light and shadow and effective composition to deliver a few genuine jolts that have been carefully edited by Tom Elkins and are naturally accompanied by fearsome music cues from Joseph Bishara. Unfortunately, Leonetti is less skilled in dealing with actors than in crafting nifty images. Wallis scrunches up her face to look weepy and concerned, but never gets beyond posing, and Horton is as wooden as Annabelle. And though Woodard and Amendola are both pros, their contributions here are far from their best work.
All of which adds up to a mediocre horror flick that can’t hold a candle to the one that inspired it. Toward the beginning of “Annabelle,” John, having made a faux pas in one of his off-hand remarks, asks Mia if he might have a redo on the previous two minutes. If the makers of the movie had any sense, they’d request one for all ninety-eight. But instead they open the door for a sequel that would serve as a connective chapter between this movie and “The Conjuring.” That possibility is really scary, especially with “The Conjuring 2” already in production.