The Conjuring was a breath of fresh air, because it was a super-scary movie that really made you care about its characters. Now there's a new prequel, about that creepy doll that barely appeared in The Conjuring. But Annabelle is a major step backwards, a movie about the horror of domesticity that pulls its punches.
Prequels are often an exercise in pointless connecting-of-dots, and follow-ups to successful horror movies are often dull cash-grabs. So Annabelle already had two strikes against it. But the notion of a period-piece, set in the late 1960s, about a demonically possessed doll, has a ton of untapped potential.
And the first act of Annabelle is pretty decent, too — the original way that creepy doll becomes demonically possessed is because a Satanic hippie cult, akin to the Manson family, goes on a murdering spree. That hippie cult, against the backdrop of everybody else looking like they just stepped out of Mad Men, is kind of shocking and genuinely scary — and it's too bad they're gone after the first 20 minutes.
The rest of the film, though, tells the remaining origin of the scary doll as a version of Ibsen's A Doll's House. In the wake of the hippie massacre, the traumatized young couple who own that doll move to an apartment building in Pasadena, where the husband, John, is becoming a doctor. And the pregnant wife, Mia, is left at home alone, with the creepy doll that has absorbed Satanist hippie blood. After she gives birth, she's looking after a baby in an increasingly Satanic apartment.
The main idea of Annabelle seems to be that being a stay-at-home mom is kind of horrific, and that domesticity is ugly and scary. John, the doctor husband, is a square-jawed, good-looking doctor who gets to go out and be fussed over, while Mia is stuck at home slowly going insane with her doll collection (including Annabelle) and her new baby.
And director John R. Leonetti really tries to make 1960s-era domestic life look terrifying. There are lots and lots of close-ups of Mia's Singer electric sewing machine, with the needle going up and down like some kind of demonic stabbing motion. By the time she actually cuts her finger with the sewing machine, you've been waiting for that to happen for ages. A phonograph playing K-TEL records, a black-and-white television showing soap operas, and Jiffy-Pop popcorn are all baffling artifacts from a scary, primitive time.
The problem is, the movie winds up pulling its punches — domestic life never becomes scary enough to be really unsettling. The creepy doll is just sort of creepy. John, the husband, isn't enough of a jerk (or a vivid enough character in general) for us to feel Mia's frustration at being trapped and taken for granted. Mia is also an incredibly bland character.
And most of all, there are just no real scares here, after the Satanic hippies are gone. The movie resorts to having people in demon costumes flouncing around, because it doesn't know what else to do after a while. The actual scary bits are either incredibly silly, or just super-dull. In the theater where I watched a preview screening, the audience was cracking up at all the supposedly terrifying parts where an elevator won't move or the creepy doll is leering from the darkness.
The only strong part of Annabelle, after the first act, is the priest character, played by Tony Amendola (Kagame from Continuum), who brings a wonderful intensity to all his scenes where he explains why Satan would use porcelain dolls for his evil purposes. Amendola single-handedly saves all the scenes he's in, and I was left feeling like he would be a great Master for Peter Capaldi's Doctor, if John Simm doesn't want to come back.
But Annabelle is such a weak effort, it makes you wonder why they bothered. Especially since it misses the point of why The Conjuring was so effective: it wasn't the period setting, or the scary geegaws, it was the characters and their personal struggles that we became invested in. Really great scares require emotional intensity, something that Annabelle (and so many other horror movies) seem to forget.