Clichés may be regrettable in a genre movie but they’re not necessarily ruinous. Exhibit A is James Wan’s The Conjuring, the greatest hits package of 2013, that conquered its derivative architecture with style. Wan knew how to move the camera, how to light a scene and how to gauge a performance. The result was a palpable hit. The prequel Annabelle, like many cash-ins before it, has no such advantages. John R. Leonetti’s film is stuttering, incoherent hackwork. The constituent elements return; long corridors, background spectres, old books with hand drawn illustrations, demons that announce themselves by fiddling with electrical appliances, and of course, creepy child playthings, but its predecessor’s polish and assured touch have passed to the other side. Like the titular doll, this thing’s off the shelf.
Screenwriter Gary Dauberman’s fashioned the kind of story that works best when you spend the running time playing with your chime box and catching up on WhatsApp. Beginning at the end, with the entry point to The Conjuring, that saw a, we suppose, vindictive mother give her Nurse daughter the world’s least friendly looking doll as a gift, the film flashes back a year, placing us in the company of an impossibly dull couple, Annabelle Wallis (sharing the name of the title character allows you to leap frog an audition) and Ward Horton, who plays a character called John Gordon. This, we feel, gives us some insight into the film’s creative development.
So Wallis is an expectant mother and Horton a trainee doctor. That’s right, a nice, white, professional middle class couple, who certainly don’t deserve to be childless and dead (unlike, say, Alfre Woodard). It’s their bad luck to live next door to the parents of a teen Satanist, targeted by a Manson Family copycat cult. With one household slaughtered, the other’s invaded and in the tussle the demonic blood of former hippie turned devil worshipper, Annabelle (take that, counter culture!), seeps into the prime exhibit in Wallis’ collection of disturbing porcelain dolls, the same dolls she intends to surround her newborn with. Social services should procure a copy of this movie for training purposes.
What follows is a lot of, “I’m sorry, could you say that again?” idiocy, in which it’s not quite clear if the satanic doll is merely possessed or a demonic plaything, or how the original cult was formed when death appears to be a prerequisite for giving your soul to the devil (we can’t help but notice that the original Annabelle and his fellow Satanists were very much alive). In fact it looks suspiciously like Dauberman bolted together the story in the time it took to drive from his house to the producer’s office. There’s not a single, original idea in Annabelle. Even the casting’s derivative, Tony Amendola seemingly given the role of the family priest because he’s a budget F. Murray Abraham, and it was hoped the audience wouldn’t notice the difference.
What really kills Annabelle however, is the punishing lack of style. To return to the top of the review, clichés needn’t beget tedium, but John R. Leonetti’s film looks cut price (an ill-advised scene poached from The Conjuring marks the difference), is poorly staged and languidly paced. In short, it’s an insipid bore. A great horror movie can be many things but never that.