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“ANNABELLE” (Movie Review)

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You’re focused on the wrong doll.

Less creepy puppet and more overt (both in demonic visuals and influence) ROSEMARY and REPULSION riff, THE CONJURING spin-off ANNABELLE is slyly, and at its best, a psychotic woman piece. At its worst, it fails to follow through on theme and threatens to render the proper frights void. Sadly, that’s often and when anyone other than lead Annabelle Wallis is on screen.

ANNABELLE aims to be a sort of origin for the eerie doll which, when director James Wan lingered heavily on, fiercely stole moments of horror hit THE CONJURING. Instead, Annabelle plays much the shadowy, wicked supporting role she did there. Director John Leonetti understands he can only exploit the figure’s inanimate stare so much, and poses her as a bewitched window into another scenario in which a demon plagues a lovely little family.

A pastel period piece—often directly clashing with its milky, low budget digital aesthetic—ANNABELLE is planted firmly in the tumultuous late 60s where John and Mia (ROSEMARY nods, ahoy) are expecting a baby, but not their idyllic suburban existence to be upended. It is violently overturned however, when kind, older neighbors are viciously murdered by their runaway daughter, now a member of a nondescript, maybe Satantic, Manson-like hippie cult. The murderess and her robed accomplice invite themselves over to Mia’s and are promptly executed by the police. In the mess, a single blood tear hits Annabelle right in the eye and an entity takes up residence.

In the aftermath of the attack, Mia is put on bed rest and it becomes clear she (surrounded by a collection of them) is much like a doll herself; outfitted in 60s chic, expected to stay put and ultimately on a shelf watching the sort of daytime television she purported to hate earlier in the film. That goes for husband John as well, a bland, useless Ken. Cooped up in something of a solitary, old-fashioned existence, Mia is prey to the sort of toying a malevolent presence will do. As ANNABELLE is already to THE CONJURING as this year’s 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE was to its predecessor (“in the style of…”), Leonetti wisely gets out of Mia and John’s suburban home and transitions the film into (again, Polanski) an even more confined apartment horror.

There, often alone with her newborn, Mia is under siege from all manner of paranormal and psychologically distraught occurrence. This is where Leonetti trades in the established Wan frights well, teasing out anticipation, extending corridors, questioning reality, forcing eyes to search negative space and unleashing a frantic energy when the particular horror reveals itself. It certainly helps that the overtly stylized, filmic period setting lends a theatricality and funhouse sense to it all, especially midst a basement-set sequence with a nightmarish devil figure and spirited elevator door gag. But playing with such recognizable reference points leaves ANNABELLE with cheap satisfaction, only enriched by Wallis in an increasingly fraught and strong performance. Her sections of supernatural frenzy play as isolated, alive set pieces, far removed from the stilted, mostly dull and expository character interaction (and red herring) that hampers and harshes ANNABELLE’s vibes.

Unfortunately, that dullness and adherence to convention ultimately win out, betraying a dark foreshadowing and any intriguing theme about a woman and mother, confined. ANNABELLE, despite its wild flashes, just cannot escape its own established, stylistic genre playhouse.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman

Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.

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