With Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin. Written by Gary Dauberman. Directed by John R. Leonetti. Rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror. 98 minutes.
Although not as scary as “The Conjuring,” ANNABELLE–which is kind-of a prequel–maintains the same tone as the earlier film. It’s eerie and scary but it avoids the cheap gore effects and tries to take its fantastic premise somewhat seriously. It doesn’t completely work, but horror fans more attuned to mood than having the filmmakers say “Boo!” every ten minutes should have a good time.
The film takes off from the truly creepy doll that had a minor role in “The Conjuring,” sitting in a glass case in the home of the paranormal investigators in that film. The setting is years earlier–around 1969 from the various cues in the film–where John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are an ideal married couple. He’s a young doctor at the start of his career. She is his very pregnant wife. They are very much in love.
One night a horrific attack takes place at their next door neighbors and Mia is injured. Somehow this weird doll that John has bought Mia is connected to the attack. Here’s where you have to make the biggest leap of faith because the doll is hideous and yet they treat it as a treasure that Mia had been searching for over the years. Although it apparently cost a bundle, John has no trouble tossing it in the trash when Mia associates it with the attack and wants to get rid of it.
When they move, the doll mysteriously moves with them, and things get strange. When Mia is befriended by a local book dealer named Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), it’s not clear if this is something positive or proof that something sinister is going on. It doesn’t help when their new baby–who is absolutely adorable–seems to be the target of not only the Annabelle doll but the Devil himself.
All of this is done by suggestion and misdirection. There are moments of horror, but much of it is hints and moments of quick action. If you’re looking for the blood to flow you’re going to be disappointed. If you can identify with John and Mia–who seem to be named for the actors who played the lead couple in “Rosemary’s Baby”–then this is a movie that will have you on edge.
Horton and Wallis are all whitebread perfection as John and Mia, until things start coming undone. Much of the focus is on Mia as the mother of a newborn and there are moments that any parent will find truly frightening. It’s odd to see an actress like Woodard in this sort of genre film but she plays it straight without a hint of condescension or winking at the audience. It’s precisely because everyone plays their parts well that we can almost–but not quite–believe it.
“Annabelle” is the first out of the gate in the October horror sweepstakes. It may not be the best, but if it’s the least, this will be a very good month for the genre indeed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.