I had unfinished business with that goddamn doll from last year’s The Conjuring. The Crayola-fixated little brat ended up getting her own spinoff, so I was ready to settle some sh*t. Those who watched director James Wan’s The Conjuring will remember Annabelle as the ceramic doll who kicked off the movie by refusing to be tossed into a dumpster. The demon-infested plaything kept coming back to terrorize two nursing students. They called upon Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), who placed the doll in their home-based occult museum for safe keeping. Annabelle still raised some hell but ended the movie behind glass (which is where the doll’s inspiration remains to this day). Annabelle wasn’t the main attraction, and I didn’t find her scary in The Conjuring. So, I was prepared to laugh at a silly movie about a goddamn doll.
Yeeeeah, about that? The goddamn doll brings it in Annabelle.
For the record, this is what the “real-life” Annabelle doll looks like. Pretty much a Raggedy Ann replica:
Not scary at all, right? They dressed the doll up a lot for these movies. Now she looks genuinely creepy, sort of like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Chucky.
Anyway, The Conjuring scrounged up over $300 million worldwide, which means a franchise was inevitable. James Wan returns but only as producer. This story takes it back to where it all began for ol’ Annabelle. Wilson and Farmiga do not reprise their roles, which already speaks to the different tone of this prequel.
This new tale doesn’t try to tell the actual history of the Annabelle doll that inspired its movie incarnation. Nope. This Annabelle origin story is some made-up stuff that purees several existing horror tropes into a lumpy smoothie. The final product tastes surprisingly yummy but doesn’t go down without a few awkward gulps.
This prequel follows a young-ish, well-to-do married couple in the late 1960s. They’re expecting their first spawn. Mia (Annabelle Wallis - not a relative of the doll) is a slightly more palatable version of Betty Draper. John (Ward Horton) is a young physician who works long hours and leaves his wife alone all the time. John feels bad about being married to his career, so he gifts Mia with a hideous looking doll. She adores the doll despite the fact that it looks … like an evil f*cking doll. But the doll isn’t really evil yet. This f*cking creepy ass doll doesn’t pose a true threat until some hippies ruined it for the yuppies. The hippies in question are Manson-esque murderers. One of them bleeds on Mia’s doll, who becomes a conduit for something truly nasty. Sh*t starts to go down. The couple tries to throw Annabelle away, but she’s not having it. They move to a different house. She follows. Mia’s mind is already fragile, and her paranoia isolates her more than she already is as a housewife who stays at home all day with a creepy f*cking doll.
What follows are a set of cheap scares that somehow work despite a little thing called common sense. This movie shouldn’t be scary at all. It’s about a stupid doll that doesn’t do anything by itself, but it makes things happen. Baaad things. Annabelle moves from room to room on her own, but mostly she just sits there. Mia hears voices, doors slam, and curtains blow for no reason. Books fall out of a bookcase and onto the floor near the baby. Home appliances go batsh*t crazy and borderline murderous. A sewing machine and some stove-popped popcorn join in the demonic fun. And goddamn it, don’t go into that basement.
Annabelle, at its core, is entirely derivative; and I realize it sounds completely silly to be scared by a doll. The film makes the premise work by effectively building tension and favoring the psychological over the physical. It’s such a simple set up (creepy f*cking doll), but that’s what makes it so effective. Annabelle lingers in the corner of frames. A crayon rolls across the floor. Menacing shadows lurk in the background. At some point, something will scare you in this movie.
Differences between The Conjuring and its prequel are many. Both movies are scary in their own way. Most notably, The Conjuring relied upon a hefty sense of atmospheric dread, taking its time before all hell broke loose (and it did). The tedium of that movie worked even though the transition to mayhem was rough. Annabelle takes a completely different approach with cheap and easy scares, often of the jump variety. Jump scares are usually pointless, but the timing works well here. Highly effective sound design (despite uneven cinematography) seals the deal.
There are annoyances along the way. Such as Mia and John finding predictable helpers in this fight. A bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) points Mia towards the right demonology resources without hesitation. A helpful, measured priest (Tony Amendola) tells the couple that “Evil is constant. You cannot destroy what was never created.” So, Annabelle doesn’t stray that far from classic possession tales. Further, the ending of this film is problematic from a sociocultural standpoint. To say more would hop into spoiler territory, and this movie didn’t make me angry enough to go there.
Here’s the thing — as a movie, Annabelle is absurdly dumb fun. Go see it if you want a pre-Halloween scare or two, but please try to wipe The Conjuring from your mind before you go. Or at least don’t consciously compare the two movies. They’re both decent (but far from superior) entries into the genre but for very different reasons.
Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at Celebitchy.