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Friday, October 3, 2014

Annabelle Review: Good Enough to Scare, Not Good Enough to Lead

The Conjuring prequel Annabelle loses steam after a compelling opening.
We've been espousing on the renaissance of classic horror films like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious for quite some time. Both have re-introduced fans to a better type of terror built upon simple but effective gags without showering the audience with too much blood and not enough compelling story, ala 2013's Evil Dead. The Conjuring origin story Annabelle tries to equal its predecessor, delivering solid but unimpressive results.

An origin story set in the same world as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Annabelle was once owned by Jon and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), a young married (and deeply religious) couple expecting their first child. When their neighbors are murdered by a duo of satanic cult members, the blood from one of the assailants drips into Annabelle, sparking a series of increasingly dangerous supernatural events. Even a change of scenery doesn't keep Annabelle away, and soon Jon and Mia must enlist the help of their priest (Tony Amendola) and a mysterious neighbor (Alfre Woodard) before Annabelle can claim another life.

Director John R. Leonetti re-introduces us to the madness contained within the doll, using the same somewhat effective scare tactics which made The Conjuring such a delightful fright-fest. Demonic possession, quick glances at Annabelle's minions, punching music, and decent performances create a believable 1960's world. The doll has always been a creepy figure, but here we learn its origin story including the presence of a horned demon terrorizes Mia in a silly elevator scene near the beginning of Act 3.

And that’s where Annabelle begins to lose steam. The doll is the center of all the misery in this family’s life, yet its lack of emotion - beyond a rocking chair or other gags - limits its effectiveness rather than becoming a fierce harbinger of demons. What we're left with is a collection of good (but not great) performances by a collection of actors who try their best to wade through Writer Gary Dauberman's rather on-the-nose script. Wallis does most of the heavy lifting here, turning in a nice performance as a religiously faithful mother who is haunted by the coming possession, tries her best to draw strength from her faith, but ultimately faces her foe in that pesky third act.

One of my biggest complaints about Annabelle is the appearance of the horned – but muted – demon, who looks more like a man in a costume than something truly terrifying, that tends to grind the third act to halt. There’s little connection between the doll and this figure, and because of this the scares aren’t nearly as compelling as they could have been. Don’t get me wrong: some of Leonetti’s terror does work, but it tends to borrow too much from The Conjuring instead of forging its own path. While an interesting idea, we either don’t need the demon or we deserve a better version of it. The joy of this series lies in its low-tech realism, content to use old-school tactics to create a good scare, as opposed to flashy CGI-enhanced monsters. That’s all well and good, until you get to that demon.

But it's not the only problem. Without a compelling story behind the possession and a cast of characters we can root for, everything just seems as though we're going through the motions of a typical low-budget horror film. I was also disappointed in the lack of cameos by Conjuring couple Patrick Wilson or Vera Farminga – their names are teased, but they fail to arrive, even though there’s the suggestion that COULD help. And as one character sacrifices themselves near film’s end, it offers no end to the terror and madness brought on by Annabelle, therefore serving no purpose. Another life is taken and the doll disappears – how typical of the genre. There are some pretty hair-raising events conjured up by Leonetti - he's got a great handle on this aspect, but the story by Dauberman needs some work.

Annabelle is suitable scary pleasure that makes a few too many mistakes along the way. Neither as terrorizing nor creepy as The Conjuring, Annabelle serves as a reminder that good terror needs compelling characters and situations as vehicles, rather than the scares themselves driving the story. With this sort of filter on, Annabelle fails; but that doesn’t mean you won’t jump out of your seat a couple of times once the lights dim.

Annabelle is rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror and has a runtime of 98 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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