Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: John R. Leonetti
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Producer: Peter Safran, James Wan
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin
A vintage children’s doll becomes a conduit for evil after a young couple is terrorized by a satanic cult.
“Child’s Play” creator Don Mancini can muse to his heart’s content about a Chucky versus Annabelle crossover, but any such showdown would be a lopsided mismatch. “Annabelle” is most definitely not a killer plaything movie, and the doll is not even its driving force. Rather, this is what a 1960s satanic thriller looks like when painted with a fresh coat of 21st-century cinematic sensibilities.
Before famed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the Perron family haunting in “The Conjuring,” they tackled the case of the cursed Raggedy Ann doll known as Annabelle. “Annabelle” is not that story, however. “Annabelle” is actually a prequel to the tale of the Warrens’ involvement with the notorious toy as well as a prequel to “The Conjuring” (review here).
According to the Warrens’ account, the “true story” of the infamous Annabelle doll began in 1970, when a mother purchased a vintage Raggedy Ann as a 28th birthday gift for her nursing student daughter Donna. Since the doll had a habit of moving on its own and writing mysterious messages, Donna and her roommate Angie sought counsel from a medium to get to the bottom of the presumed paranormal activity.
The ladies came to learn that Raggedy Ann was actually Annabelle Higgins, a seven-year-old girl who supposedly died tragically on the property where Donna and Angie’s apartment now stood. Or so the supernatural spirit claimed.
After Donna’s friend Lou had more than one near-fatal encounter with the pint-sized terror, the Warrens entered the picture. Ed and Lorraine determined that the doll itself was not really possessed at all, but rather inhabited by a devious demonic entity looking to take a human host. Rites of exorcism ensued, as did additional deathly experiences for those entering the devil doll’s sphere of influence. In the end, Annabelle came to find herself permanently confined within a blessed display case inside the Warrens’ occult museum/home.
The veracity of the above claims remains a matter of debate between skeptics and supporters. One thing known for certain is that Annabelle’s origin story as told in the movie bearing her name is 100% fictional. “Annabelle” is a “what if?” tale of how the doll came to harbor a demonic darkness before Donna’s mother made that fateful find in a secondhand antique shop.
It is October of 1970, when the turbulent sixties turned into even more tumultuous times where neighborhood doors no longer remained unlocked and scandalous stories of sex cults and savagery made headline news. Ideal Middle Americans John and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis, the latter of whom resembles a blonde Tina Fey) are expecting their first child, and John keeps a smile on his wife’s face by gifting Mia with a highly sought-after addition for her vintage doll collection.
Celebration turns to terror when the next-door neighbors are brutally butchered by their estranged daughter Annabelle Higgins and her bearded boyfriend, the hippie leader of a satanic cult. Hellbent on a demonic summoning, the devilish duo sets sights on John and Mia as their next knife victims. But the blade finds Annabelle instead, and her blood drips into the doll now clutched by her corpse’s claws.
Life moves on, as do John, Mia, and their newborn daughter Leah. Annabelle moves with them, too. From Santa Monica to Pasadena, paranormal activity becomes a persistent plague from which Mia is seemingly unable to escape. Death ended Annabelle’s life, but it did not diminish her cult’s desire to invoke an evil spirit. The doll is merely a conduit. What the demon really wants is to possess a human soul. Mia or Leah. And it is determined to take one of them no matter what.
“Annabelle” is as close to a James Wan-styled thriller as a movie not actually helmed by James Wan can realistically get. Longtime cinematographer and frequent Wan collaborator John R. Leonetti takes his turn in the director’s chair and brings along the same signature style that gave “Dead Silence,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring” their distinct looks of colorful creepiness. James Kniest is the actual director of photography, but Leonetti’s fingerprint presses into every unsettling visual to ensure it fits in a weird Wan-esque world.
Point an accusatory finger towards the movie’s reliance on jarring jolts to frighten, and “Annabelle” is guilty as charged. But from a three-foot ghost charging the nursery room door to a basement’s black bassinet harboring a sinister stowaway, these jumps are cleverly-crafted scares, not cheap “gotcha” gags of straightforward hand grabs and noisy audio peaks.
Leonetti and Kneist consider camera design carefully, allowing atmosphere to remain alarming when the meat of the story starts losing muscle. Suspense is built “Final Destination”-style with tightening close-ups on foreshadowed dangers like a fast-stitching sewing machine or stovetop popcorn eager to burst. The inevitable outcome is purposely telegraphed, yet predictability makes the payoff no less explosive when it finally pops the anticipation.
Watching frights unfold in “Annabelle” is akin to a David Copperfield performance. There is no true mystery regarding smoke and mirror tricks of how a velvet curtain masks an illusory disappearance. A seasoned audience knows how the effect is accomplished and has seen it done before, but it is always entertaining to experience when executed with precision craftsmanship.
Long before the protagonist couple moves into their Bramford/Dakota-inspired apartment, “Annabelle” is upfront about its desire to evoke all the best dark qualities of “Rosemary’s Baby” (review here). (As if the main characters’ names were not an obvious clue.) Those demonic conspiracy themes then smash into the crazed cult mentality of “Helter Skelter” to give “Annabelle” a unique flavor for contemporary haunted house horror. Slather on Bob Ziembicki’s sharp production design and Joseph Bishara’s warbled string section strains that made the music stings of “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” so haunting, and “Annabelle” makes up in mood what it misses in context.
The film’s last twenty minutes are as weak as the first twenty minutes are strong. “Annabelle” admittedly takes a perfectly pitched setup and hits more than one foul ball with a mistimed swing as the plot rolls forward. Anyone in the cast who is not John or Mia is basically either a plot device or an exposition faucet. Alfre Woodard in particular doesn’t even play an actual character; she plays a deus ex machina. And the climax rolls up in a conclusion leaving something to be desired as far as sensible explanations and springboards into the next chapter go.
Yet even when the story is not fully satisfying, the movie’s sense of stylish scares still is. Anyone anticipating a knife-clutching doll wobbling down hallways and cackling maniacally will be disappointed to discover that Annabelle moves of her own accord on camera just once in the entire film. For a movie with the appearance of being about a deadly plaything, “Annabelle” is far closer in tone to the sinister stylings of “The Conjuring” than to “Dolls” or “Demonic Toys.” Plan for eerie visceral chills and evil overtones instead of traditional killer doll trappings, and disappointment will be infinitely harder to come by.
Review Score: 85