LOS ANGELES (AP) — Inanimate objects are deployed to endless would-be scary effect in “Annabelle,” and it’s not just the supremely creepy doll that is its star. In this prequel to last year’s hit “The Conjuring” — one of the most effective haunted house movies of recent years — cheap jolts are provided by an errant sewing machine, a record player spinning The Association’s hit “Cherish,” heavy books, a malfunctioning elevator and even an unattended Jiffy Pop popcorn pan. The filmmakers literally throw in everything but the kitchen sink.
Usually, movie spin-offs attempt to up the ante — witness this summer’s “The Purge: Anarchy,” which considerably ramped up the scale of its low-budget predecessor. Here, director John R. Leonetti (“Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”) and producers Peter Safran and James Wan have taken a low-rent approach, with a cast of unknowns substituting for such estimable performers as Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor. It’s as if they thought the doll alone could carry the movie, but Annabelle is no Chucky.
Set in the late 1960s, the story concerns young married couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis). Mia is heavily pregnant (and is the character’s name a sly homage to the star of “Rosemary’s Baby”?), and her husband gifts her with the large-sized doll she’s apparently been coveting to complete her collection. The fact that the horrific-looking thing resembles Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” doesn’t seems to concern them in the slightest.
Before Mia gives birth, the kindly elderly couple next door is murdered by their wayward daughter Annabelle and her boyfriend, members of a Manson Family-type satanic cult. In the film’s best and most truly terrifying scene, the intruders subsequently break into John and Mia’s house, with the boyfriend shot dead by police and Annabelle slashing her own throat while clutching the doll.
The understandably rattled couple quickly moves into a creepy apartment building in Pasadena, but the shift in locale doesn’t prevent things from inevitably going bump in the night. The doll, which John had dumped in the trash, makes a miraculous reappearance in one of the moving boxes and assumes a place in the infant’s bedroom.
Although we never see the doll orchestrating any of the mayhem — it remains steadfastly immobile throughout — Mia is soon subject to a series of increasingly terrifying events, with even a pair of neighboring children contributing to the air of dread via some crudely monstrous drawings. Looking for answers in a local bookstore, Mia tells the friendly proprietress (Alfre Woodward) that “I think we’re being haunted by a ghost.” Her crisp reply: “Aisle four - follow me.”
Eventually they call in the neighborhood priest (Tony Amendola) who, after delivering a quick primer on the nature of evil, helpfully takes the doll off their hands. You can guess how well that turns out.
Gary Dauberman’s haphazard screenplay merely piles on the cheap scares, with director Leonetti cranking the volume up to 11 to accentuate the frequent jolts. It all adds up to a compendium of horror-movie clichés, including fleeting images of a demon-like figure. Despite the gimmicky nature of the proceedings, they’re undeniably effective, especially in a packed theater filled with genre fans essentially begging to be terrified.
But the film is ultimately so generic and formulaic that you’ll probably forget it by the time you get home. Equally unmemorable are the bland performances by the two leads who never manage to elicit the necessary sympathy for their characters’ plight.
The film is likely to scare up big bucks at the box-office, with its low budget ensuring profitability. So we’ll no doubt be seeing that creepy doll again. Here’s hoping she gets a more deserving vehicle.
“Annabelle,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror.” Running time: 98 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.