The devil-doll lark "Annabelle" exists to make its host movie, last year's excellent "The Conjuring," look even better by comparison. As prequels go, it's not bad, though a couple of things keeping it from amounting to more are worth discussing, briefly, before we all get back to our lives.
Here's one drawback: It looks like cheap digital crud. Horror fans are used to lo-fi visual scares, especially in the found-footage genre, but "Annabelle" is not one of those films; it's a low-budget period picture, set in 1970, shot by first-time feature cinematographer James Kniest on dirt-cheap equipment that turns every image, every scene into a weirdly subconscious exercise in viewer resistance.
The other big drawback is simply premise fatigue, leading to low-level audience exasperation. How many shocks must the bright young California couple played by Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton endure, first in a Santa Monica bungalow and then in a Pasadena apartment decorated to look like Isabella Rossellini's pad in "Blue Velvet," before they realize the doll on the shelf is the source of their problems? The thing reeks of Satan.
Efficiently, screenwriter Gary Dauberman locates the action in the context of the Manson family murders. Wallis' character, Mia, is pregnant and always at the sewing machine, when she's not watching "Laugh-In" or "General Hospital"; her husband, John, is a doctor in training, who buys his wife the unsettling vintage doll. One night, through their bedroom window, they see glimpses of their neighbors being murdered by an estranged, satanic-cultist daughter and her boyfriend. Then the devil worshippers come after John and Mia. Cops burst in, bam bam bam, and the blood of the dying daughter seeps into the doll, which was evil to begin with, but now! Now, she's able to put the evil to work and spends the rest of "Annabelle" making life tricky for John and Mia and their newborn daughter.
If the central couple's character names ring a bell, it's likely because Dauberman is tipping his hat to John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow, the stars of "Rosemary's Baby." The baby carriage made famous in Roman Polanski's masterly creep-out reappears here as well. A few of the jolts do the job; I especially liked director John R. Leonetti's single-take shot from inside the Pasadena complex's elevator, where we see a terrified Mia (Wallis is quite good, though the British actress's American dialect has somehow led her to whisper every line) unable to get the doors to open on any floor except the demon-inhabited basement.
Leonetti photographed "The Conjuring," and "Annabelle" suggests a director of promise, though at this point his facility for sudden violence isn't yet there. Each time a character gets tossed in the air by some manifestation or another, the effect is cheesy. Still, I've seen worse. For the record, the violence in "Annabelle" is far less copious and sadistic than the stuff in the Denzel Washington movie everybody's going to.
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