Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Annabelle / ** (R)

Mia Gordon: Annabelle Wallis
John Gordon: Ward Horton
Father Perez: Tony Amendola
Evelyn: Alfre Woodard

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by John R. Leonetti. Written by Gary Dauberman. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror).

I suppose most of us have a deep-rooted fear of dolls coming to life in some way or another. Whether it’s like the clown under the bed in “Poltergeist” or just the kid’s plaything-come-to-life ala Chucky in “Child’s Play”, Hollywood is no stranger to this fact. So, when last year’s sleeper hit “The Conjuring” featured a very creepy looking doll that had supposedly been the worst case the ghost hunters in that film had ever seen, it was inevitable that we’d learn more about it in another movie.

Now, we get “Annabelle”, titled after the doll featured in “The Conjuring”. The same people who made “The Conjuring” produced this move, which makes sense. The same producers are also responsible for the two “Insidious” movies. The feel and themes of both series make their way into this prequel of sorts. It has a similar period setting as “The Conjuring”, but its horror is more deeply rooted in the sinister machinations of the “Insidious” movies. It has some very scary moments indeed, but it never quite gels together as well as those previous films, and what’s left is creepy, but messy.

We meet John and Mia Gordon in church. They’re young and expecting their first child. They seem distracted from the Catholic services they attend. I’m not sure if this is supposed to mean something or not. It doesn’t go anywhere. They accompany their older neighbors home. The older couple seems wise in the ways of parenting, but their daughter has left them “to join the hippies.” Later that evening a couple representing a Satanic cult breaks into the neighbors’ house and murders them before making their way over to the Gordon’s. One of the cultists is the neighbor’s daughter. She takes a liking to Mia’s doll Annabelle before the police kill her and her companion. The house will never be the same for Mia.

Soon after she returns home from the hospital after the incident, under strict bed rest orders, strange things begin to occur. This is where the typical haunting clichés show up. You get your doors opening and closing by themselves, the doll is found in a different place than its left, the sewing machine runs on its own. Then, a strange event occurs involving stovetop popcorn, which still doesn’t make sense to me in terms of what the possessed doll wants. I suppose that starting a fire with a jiffy pop style popcorn mechanism is original. I’ve never seen it before, but it seems a little like walking 360 degrees around a house just to go in the front door.

Later on after the couple has moved to an apartment building to escape the strange occurrences, there is a wonderfully frightening sequence that takes place in the apartment building basement. By this point the movie seems to have forgotten its inspiration of the possessed doll as its primary horror motif. While this sequence is incredibly scary and may stay with audience members into their nightmares, it’s also undeniably derivative of the concepts that fuel the movie “Insidious”. Are there no other frightening thoughts behind director John Leonetti’s imagination? He served as cinematographer on both “Insidious”

I like that screenwriter Gary Dauberman doesn’t succumb to the cliché of the doubting spouse. Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton do a good job playing the innocent young couple. When a woman is pregnant, there’s a temptation to have the husband and others react with the idea that the pregnancy has somehow affected the woman’s mental faculties. While it’s nice to avoid this cliché, all of the major characters—including a priest and a used book store owner with her own cross to bear—seem pretty willing to accept the premise of the supernatural. That is becoming a more common weakness in modern horror flicks. A skeptic is a good way to add tension along with providing the audience with a victim they can root for getting it good.

“Annabelle” will please those who are looking for more of the shocks that helped to make “The Conjuring” a success. I’ll admit I wasn’t a fan of that film either. Too much emphasis is placed on the practice of shock and awe frights, rather than building the tension with thoughtful storytelling. There is never a sense in either of these films of the world in which we actually inhabit where ghosts and demons are just tales told to scare each other. It isn’t frightening for these things to exist. It’s frightening to think they could exist when we’re pretty much convinced that they don’t.

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