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‘Annabelle’ conjures very few scares

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Annabelle
Written by Gary Dauberman
Directed by John R. Leonetti
USA, 2014

 

A word of advice: If your significant other loves creepy dolls… run!  And you should always avoid letting a murder doll babysit your newborn child.  Sadly, these aren’t the stupidest things you will see in Annabelle, the prequel to last year’s wildly successful, The Conjuring.  Inhabited by bland characters being terrorized by a bland demon, Annabelle blandly goes where all supernatural horror movies have gone before.  You can count the number of original ‘scares’ on one finger.  Which finger you choose is entirely up to your discretion.

All the things that made The Conjuring such a wonderful surprise have been conveniently reduced to an easy-to-swallow capsule form in Annabelle.  Too bad it’s just a placebo.  You have a satanic cult after an “innocent soul” so they can conjure a demon and do demonic-type stuff.  Of course, a movie so immersed in religious dogma should know that we’re all born into sin, which means there’s no such thing as an innocent soul.  On the sliding scale of innocence, however, the demons select a pretty suitable couple in Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton).

To call Mia and John milquetoast would be an insult to both milk and toast.  There are no skeletons in their closet.  No infidelities in their past.  It’s highly doubtful they have any unpaid parking tickets.  They simply have the misfortune of living next door to a ritual killing and owning the creepiest freaking doll ever conceived.  Now the demons want their newborn infant who, until the appearance of the always-amazing Alfre Woodard, delivers the most nuanced performance in the film.  There’s also a priest (Tony Amendola) to verify that demons in the basement and murderous dolls are not condoned by the Church.

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For some unfathomable reason, director, John R. Leonetti, feels compelled to spend scene after scene with Mia and John.  Sure, they’re likeable in a Donny & Marie sort of way, but they’re also complete zeros, even by horror movie standards.  The result is a first half that gives audiences plenty of time to finish their concession purchases and maybe take a short trip outside… to the Ozarks.  We get the occasional jump scare and lots of set-ups with disappointing payoffs.  When multiple scenes are spent lingering on a power sewing machine, for instance, one anticipates more carnage than a little boo-boo.  There’s more hell unleashed by a bowl of Jiffy Pop than any demon in Annabelle.

Gary Dauberman is tasked with penning a script that was literally doomed from the start.  Like most movies motivated by cynical cash grabs, Annabelle doesn’t take many chances.  It plays its supernatural formula straight by the book, with nary a surprise that might trouble general audiences.  Simply put, there’s no good reason for this movie to exist.  It has nothing original to say, and it sure as hell contributes nothing to our understanding or enjoyment of The Conjuring.

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It must be noted that Alfre Woodard does amazing work here.  Her character, the only one gifted with any sort of depth or backstory, would make the perfect protagonist for a horror film.  She’s sympathetic and kind, while still remaining capable and smart.  In other words, she’s a real human being, rather than some cardboard cutout fulfilling a genre convention.  Everyone else is painfully stupid and incapable of engendering any sort of empathy.  This limits the scares to fleeing moments rather than building a general sense of dread.  If Annabelle fails to deliver at the box office, it will be because audiences refuse to embrace such lackluster characters.

Annabelle certainly isn’t the worst horror film you will see this year, but it commits the cardinal sin of playing it safe.  Worse still, it’s not ingenious enough to compensate for its lack of courage.  About the only thing it has going for it is some unintentional hilarity, including a single-minded determination to ensure the happiness of its snowy-white protagonists.  As satire, it works remarkably well.  As horror, however, it’s deader than a doll’s eyes.


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