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October 3, 2014

Horror fans will remember that The Conjuring was based in part on the real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Part of that movie’s events involved their “trophy room”, where they store mementos from their cases. Or, more to the point, objects they believe to be conduits for malign influences. One of their most notorious artifacts is a doll, and a story about that doll has now been turned into Annabelle.

Now, as a kinda-sorta prequel to The Conjuring, Annabelle falls into one of the better subgenres of current horror movies: focused on high production values, storytelling, and atmosphere over cheap shakycam stunts and yelling “boo” at the audience. Unfortunately, considered among that company it’s kind of a let-down. The story works better than Paranormal Activity, but it’s still thin, and it relies more heavily on jump-scares than on building a truly creepy tone.

As it turns out, the movie doesn’t actually deal directly with the Warrens. There’s a prologue interview with the two young nurses who brought the doll to the Warrens’ attention; one of them says her mother purchased the doll from a curio store, with no idea where it came from before that. The rest of the movie is basically an origin story made up from whole cloth to fill in this gap.

And so we meet John and Mia Gordon (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis). John is a medical student in Santa Monica about to become a doctor, and his wife Mia is very pregnant. Their next-door neighbors are slaughtered by their estranged daughter, Annabelle (Tree O’Toole), now part of a Manson Family-style cult, and before she can be captured she breaks into the Gordon’s rented house and commits suicide, bleeding out onto one of Mia’s creepier collectible dolls.

Strange things start happening, of course, including a nasty fire in their kitchen. Luckily they were about to move to Pasadena anyway for John’s work, but the creepiness follows them. Luckily they have the support of their parish priest (F. Murray Abraham) — for some reason they’re still driving back to Santa Monica for church every Sunday — and there’s a Magical Black Lady (Alfre Woodard) living in their building who strikes up a friendship with Mia.

And really that’s about it. We’ve got stuff moving around, spirits walking around in the background, a demon in a dark basement, and jump-scares galore. There’s just not a lot of story here, and without a story it’s hard to get really creeped out beyond the tension telegraphed by the score.

It’s not all bad, though. The ’60s period work is nicely done, for instance. And there’s a moment where it looks like the film will serve as a metaphor for postpartum depression and the harm caused by gaslighting women’s concerns, before it swerves into its disappointingly clich├ęd climax. And I’ll take Annabelle any day of the week over yet another boring, cheapo Paranormal Activity installment. But we’ve seen so much better from this production team, and we should expect more than we get here.

Worth It: only for heavy horror fans.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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