[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS]
My nights as a toddler were haunted by a smiling clown doll perched on the top of my dresser. Its plainness was the source of its menace; the idea that its smiling visage masked a hatred and terror more palpable than anything I could imagine; that one night its brightly colored legs might come to life and carry a pair of brightly colored arms to my throat. The problem with John R. Leonetti’s Annabelle is that its eponymous possessed doll is so sinister looking that nobody in their right mind would think it anything but haunted. Pictures of the real-life Annabelle (currently under the supervision of Ed and Lorraine Warren) reveal it to be nothing more than a Raggedy Ann Doll. If Annabelle had featured a possessed Raggedy Ann Doll, then maybe the filmmakers would have been on to something. But instead, they doom the film for generic mediocrity from the very start.
Annabelle is a prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), a film which overcame its over-reliance on CGI effects and overblown possession sequences with solid direction and clever frame compositions that kept the audience misdirected and looking at either the wrong area of the frame or into the wrong plane of vision while something nasty crept into view. The opening sequence where the Annabelle doll is first introduced and terrorizes a group of nurses was one of the film’s most effective. Since The Conjuring went on to gross almost $300 million worldwide, a follow-up film was inevitable. And considering how memorable that nasty little doll was despite its relatively paltry screen-time, a film which explored just how it became so evil must have seemed a financially sound investment.
But instead of hiring a competent filmmaker, the producers handed over directorial duties to the man responsible for Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) and The Butterfly Effect 2 (2006). The result is a film as predictable and tedious as it is contrived. The doll comes to haunt John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), a young married couple with their first child on the way. When John gives Annabelle to Mia as a present, she lovingly puts it in a place of honor in the new baby room instead of doing the sensible thing and insisting that he return it and never speak of the doll again (but apparently it’s a “collector’s item,” so what do I know). This being a horror film set in late 60s California, it isn’t long before a couple of Charles Manson wannabe cultists break in, attack them, and use Annabelle as a conduit to summon a demon.
The remaining run-time is a litany of horror cliches: they are tormented by an unseen power, move to another apartment, are aided by a Magical Negro, and eventually have to rescue their newborn from the demon. Piercing orchestral stings pummel the tawdry jump scares to oblivion while the sounds of disembodied laughing children and self-rocking chairs try desperately to provoke their bored audience. And even worse, the film has their Magical Negro sacrifice her life to save the beleaguered white protagonists. Somebody should have told Mr. Leonetti that that automatically makes your movie unsalvageable.