James Wan's 2013 horror film The Conjuring is one of the more pleasantly surprising genre success stories of recent years. It's a somewhat conventional but marvelously effective roller coaster ride of an exorcism movie, delivering one thunderous, room-rattling set piece after another and benefitting from wonderfully specific '70s-era production design, pitch-perfect performances and Wan's knack for knowing precisely when to go for slow-burn chills and when to crank things up to 11.
If you saw that film, you may recall a creepy doll named Annabelle, which played a small but memorable role in the proceedings. I'm not sure that the doll was creepy enough to merit its own spin-off movie, but horror franchises have always been particularly enthusiastic about wringing every single penny out of an idea, so now we have this movie. The film was directed by John R. Leonetti, a veteran horror cinematographer whose only other directorial credits are Mortal Combat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2. There's an opportunity for easy snark here, but I haven't seen either of those. Maybe they're great! Annabelle definitely isn't great, though.
Our tale begins in 1969, where we meet happy young couple John (Ward Horton, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Mia Form (Annabelle Wallis, Snow White and the Huntsman), who are expecting their first child. Mia is a doll collector, and John – doting husband that he is – has just tracked down a rare doll she's been looking for. It's a creepy-looking doll, but not a demonic one. Alas, a bizarre, violent incident involving the Form's next-door neighbors leads to the doll getting possessed by the spirit of a young woman named Annabelle. Mia and Jon don't know this, though, so they'll be forced to endure all sorts of creepy stuff until they figure it out.
Annabelle makes an effort to imitate The Conjuring's steady stream of crazy, unsettling haunted house sequences, but it has neither the imagination nor the financial resources of that film. The production budget for Annabelle was less than 1/3rd of what Warner Bros. spent on The Conjuring (already a modestly-budgeted film), and it shows: the period-specific production design isn't nearly as convincing and the big special effects sequences occur far more infrequently. It's perhaps an inevitability that this movie would feature more dialogue scenes as padding, but the low budget doesn't excuse (or explain) the fact that those scenes are so tiresomely generic. I'd estimate that roughly 50% of the dialogue in the movie boils down to the Forms asking variations on “So what do we do now?”, while much of the rest involves wise old authority figures (a bookstore owner played by Alfre Woodard; a priest played by Tony Amendola) dispensing mostly-useless advice. Occasionally, there are bits of scripture (including a preposterous use of John 15:13) thrown into the mix to give the whole thing an air of gravitas.
“Yeah, whatever. Is it creepy?” you may ask. Well, as with all horror, your mileage may vary... but I'd say it's a whole lot less creepy than it ought to be, mostly because Leonetti struggles to maintain a sustained sense of tension. There are a handful of decent little self-contained horror sequences (particularly a tense early bit involving a pan full of popcorn and a sewing machine), but they're largely surrounded by long, ponderous bits of suspense-free drama. By the time the film finally starts serving up some nonstop mayhem, it's gotten too silly to get invested in. The doll still looks creepy, but it was better as a glorified prop than as a movie star.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 2015