Silver Screen: Annabelle ***1/2
One of the highlights of last year’s enjoyable haunted-house flick The Conjuring was a little story-within-a-story that played like a self-contained short film in which a creepy doll menaces an apartment full of student nurses. It was a nifty diversion that made excellent use of a truly eerie prop and just a few minutes of screentime. The brevity of the subplot seemed ideal for the subject matter, which seems potentially limited. How long can you string out the clattering footsteps and tiny shadows of a killer-doll tale?
That’s the pressing question in the spinoff Annabelle, which gives the demonic dummy a whole feature film to play around in. The premise initially seems like a greedy grab for more of something that succeeded in large part due to its brevity. There’s a reason you don’t make the entire hot-fudge sundae out of whipped cream.
Improbably, Conjuring cinematographer John Leonetti and first-time screenwriter Gary Dauberman found a way to turn this potential schlockfest into a Halloween treat. The answer to the question “How do you make a dummy movie scary for an hour and a half” turns out to be elegantly simple: Don’t make the movie about the dummy.
Just as Annabelle served as an apéritif for The Conjuring’s hauntings, the first act of her solo outing lays the groundwork for the remainder of the film with a little minimovie. Newlyweds Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are anticipating the birth of their first child, a blessing that also highlights the tragedy of their neighbors and church friends, whose teenage daughter ran off to join a cult. Just in case the foreshadowing wasn’t enough— Annabelle is set in the late 1960s— Mia distracts herself by watching news footage of the Manson Family.
Sure enough, the neighbor’s daughter returns home with her crazy-eyed cult boyfriend, and mayhem ensues. It’s a freaky sequence that concludes with the dying daughter clutching the newest member of Mia’s doll collection. After the horrifying incident, Mia demands that John throw the doll away as the couple tries to move on with their lives. But a series of strange incidents continues at their new house, and the Annabelle doll keeps turning up.
Dauberman’s clever innovation is to make the doll a totem for a vengeful ghost rather than a literal incarnation of the dead girl. Thus every creepy calamity doesn’t have to be accompanied by the clip-clopping of tiny wooden feet and a lot of tiresome repetitions of “I could have sworn that doll was facing the other direction earlier....” There’s a ghost, an unnerving, wonderfully designed demon that has been, er, “conjured,” and yes, some creepy-doll stuff. The variation allows director Leonetti to indulge in the spooky possessed-dummy motifs that date back to Talking Tina from the classic “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, but allows him enough freedom not to be boxed in (har-har!) to a silly climax in which an adult actor must mime fighting a frenzied mini-mannequin, à la the more wacky Child’s Play.
Speaking of Child’s Play, horror aficionados may note that Annabelle’s possession is awfully similar to the dying shaman (played by the great Brad Dourif) passing his soul into a Chucky doll. Call it an homage or call it a straight lift, but it gets Annabelle where it needs to go. (Personally, I don’t have rigid standards for originality in my killer-doll movies.)
Leonetti, who happens to have been the director of photography for both The Conjuring and Child’s Play III, drags his wooden characters, both the literal and metaphorical kind, through some fantastic and unnerving setpieces. At times the scares seem tangentially related and almost randomly generated, but Leonetti certainly does generate scares— a harrowing scene in which Mia is stuck in an elevator that won’t leave the basement chief among them. Annabelle is just as silly as you want a killer doll movie to be... but not so silly it might not cross your mind later that night when you turn out the lights.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.