If you can think back a year to James Wan’s The Conjuring, a horror movie supposedly drawn from the true-life accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, you’ll remember a brief subplot involving a doll with possible ties to demonic occurrences. That doll, being so memorably creepy, now serves as the basis for a spinoff film, Annabelle, for which Wan remains on board as one of the producers but relinquishes his position as director. When you consider how successful The Conjuring was, both financially and critically, this might not have been the wisest move on Wan’s part; Annabelle, while certainly atmospheric, lacks that extra something that would have enabled acceptance of the many conventions and contrivances so prevalent in this particular horror subgenre.
My personal belief is that it lacks a solid story. I think the reason The Conjuring worked was because, despite its reliance on every ghost-movie cliché imaginable and its very routine approach to character and plot, it at least had a plot that carried through from beginning to end. Annabelle plays more like a series of individual story strands, none developed to their fullest or allowed to carry the entirety of the film very far along. The strands are loosely strung together by scenes of terror, all of which are competently crafted yet are as fleeting and random as the popout scares in a carnival spookhouse. It doesn’t help that the narrative significance of the doll isn’t revealed until nearly the last act. Up until that point, it serves mostly as an unnerving set piece, director John R. Leonetti fixated on agonizingly long close-up shots of its face.
The story, said to also be based on the Warrens’ investigative work, is set in 1970s, specifically a year prior to the events of The Conjuring, and takes place in Los Angeles. There, we meet a young married couple, John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis). Like every character in this film, the Gordons are little more than stock characters bound by the unwritten but well-understood laws of horror movies. John, for example, is finishing med school and about to start his residency, which means there will always be a job-related excuse to keep him out of the story, away from the action, and essentially ignorant of the situation. Mia is about ready to give birth, and we all know that expectant mothers and/or babies have long been associated with the horror genre, especially when a story involves demonic or satanic forces.
As a present, John gives Mia, a doll collector, a rare vintage doll she has seemingly been coveting for quite some time. When the box is first opened, we’re initially shown Mia’s reaction, which is one of excitement, happiness, and gratitude. Then the scene cuts to a shot of the doll itself lying in its box; although the face isn’t yet weathered and smudged with dirt, the glassy, piercing eyes and demented Joker-like smile are so skin-crawlingly unpleasant that it’s impossible to believe Mia would be grateful to receive the doll, or that she would want it in the first place. Be that as it may, at around the same time, the Gordons’ next door neighbors are brutally murdered by their estranged daughter, Annabelle, who ran off and joined a satanic cult. After attacking and nearly killing both Mia and her unborn baby, Annabelle commits suicide by slitting her own throat. And wouldn’t you know, she was holding Mia’s new doll as she did this, and a drop of her blood fell into the doll’s eye.
As Mia recovers from her attack, her house is beset with bouts of paranormal activity – i.e. electronic devices working on their own, a chair rocking itself, and the stove turning on while Mia is in the other room, igniting a conveniently forgotten pan of instant popcorn that in turn set the kitchen on fire. After the birth of their child, a daughter, the Gordons move into an apartment complex, where, of course, the paranormal activity persists and expands to include visitations from what appears to be the ghost of Annabelle. It should be noted that, prior to the move, Mia had a change of heart about her new doll and requested it be trashed; somehow, it found its way out of the trash can and into one of the Gordons’ moving boxes. Anyway, these escalating events necessitate the inclusion of a priest (Tony Amendola) and a curiously intuitive neighbor (Alfre Woodard), along with a lot of talk about demons, conduits, and the offering of one’s soul.
To be fair, many of the scarier scenes are, on a technical level, very effective. One of my favorite sequences has Mia trying to escape her building’s dark cellar by getting on an elevator; even though she clearly presses the button for the floor her apartment is on, and even though the elevator car moves in an upward direction, the doors open and reveal that she’s still in the cellar. And there’s no denying the atmosphere created by Joseph Bishara’s score, which consists mostly of strings that crescendo dissonantly and sudden loud orchestral bursts. The problem with Annabelle is that its scares are momentary and separated by long stretches of barely mediocre storytelling. If The Conjuring proved anything, it’s that even the most cliché-ridden ghost stories can be a great deal of fun as long as some effort is put into the screenplay.