John R Leonetti’s Annabelle , the expansion on the opening of the 2013 hit The Conjuring , has all the ingredients of a bad horror movie: Boring characters, acting as stiff as the titular doll, a few jump scares, and loud music. However, something clicks in the second half and the film’s faults are nearly trumped by quietly horrifying tension that rivals the best scenes of its predecessor. And then the tension breaks and you may find yourself cowering behind your own sweating palms.
In Santa Monica, CA in 1970, newlyweds Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Gordon (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. The white-teeth and porcelain-skin couple comes home after a morning at church and John presents his wife with a large, red-haired doll she’s been searching for forever. Even before anything paranormal occurs, one can’t help but fear the doll already. How could you not with its wide eyes and bizarre, red mouth? Meanwhile, the news of the Manson murders just broke and their neighbors’ daughter has been missing for two years, suspected of joining the hippie movement.
Later that night, in one of the film’s creepiest sequences, two crazed cult members murder the neighbors, seen through the Gordons’ window without a sound, and invade the expecting couple’s unlocked home. As John fights off one attacker, the other escapes to the room where the doll sits and the police later find the intruder with her own throat slit, holding the blood soaked doll. And so begins the barrage of moving doors, mysteriously functioning appliances, and extended close-ups of the doll’s unmoving face. Oh, and did I mention the suicidal cult member was also the neighbors’ daughter named Annabelle?
Despite Leonetti’s calculated and eerie shots (he served as the cinematographer for The Conjuring ), the problems with the film come down to its slow, inconsequential pace and the lead actor and actress’ performances, though both of these problems go hand in hand. Wallis and Horton don’t build on their fear despite having their baby’s life threatened a countless number of times. Sure, they show a barely adequate amount of fear in the moment, but it never carries over. Each haunting seems to surprise this couple that has as much personality as a failed 1950’s sitcom.
Wallis’ bumbling Mia has been physically assaulted, dragged by an invisible force, and she’s even experienced a mishap with a sewing machine, but one needs life to experience fear and there’s hardly any life to Mia. Each of her sentences ends with ellipses and her baby’s coos are louder than her own talking. Casual conversations feel like profound announcements without the profound announcement as she stumbles for words and talks like she’s holding a secret.
Sharper editing or acting-based direction on Leonetti’s part would have most likely fixed this problem. Even acting veteran Alfre Woodard, playing a tenant with a taste for the supernatural in the apartment building the Gordons relocate to, offers little more than the actual doll. Her consistently wide eyes show a little something, but she struggles to get her words out like Mia, giving scenes a similar feeling of trying to run underwater.
However, once the couple moves into this apartment complex, Annabelle really ratchets up the fear. Similar to The Conjuring’s director James Wan almost to a fault, Leonetti utilizes long shots and silence to bring the audience into the ambiguity of fearful moments. In perhaps the movie’s tensest sequence, Mia escapes to an elevator that won’t function after the film’s surprise villain confronts her. With one long shot, the scene goes on and on as she hopes the elevator will begin to rise while also knowing the malevolent force could attack at any moment. While James Wan presented his horrifying style with much more visual flair, Leonetti still uses these techniques successfully, most likely because they’re new to the modern horror scene and haven’t been over utilized. For now, they work enough to bring Annabelle significantly above most recent horror movies with the same weaknesses.
With a film like The Conjuring constantly hanging over its head, it’s hard to expect Annabelle to perform to its precursor’s standards and it certainly doesn’t. What made The Conjuring so effective was its tactful handling of cliché images, reminding us why creaking houses used to scare us. Annabelle attempts the same thing without as much success. However, its quiet tension, eternally creepy mascot, and the barely illuminated malevolent force (literally) behind said mascot provide enough terror to leave you wondering what happened to the girls from the beginning of The Conjuring.