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Dustin Putman

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Annabelle  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by John R. Leonetti.
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O'Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin, Ivar Brogger, Gabriel Bateman, Shiloh Nelson, Keira Daniels.
2014 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and terror).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 1, 2014.
When James Wan's "The Conjuring" became a hit with critics and audiences upon release in July 2013, the film's handsome '70s-throwback style brought unnerving suspense and pleasing attention to character to its true-life account of demonic infestation. One of the haunted artifacts that sat encased in glass in the home of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren was the malevolent Annabelle doll, said to be possessed by a deranged woman who committed suicide named Annabelle Higgins. When a spin-off prequel entitled, naturally, "Annabelle" was announced, there was the fear that it might be a cheap, slapdash knock-off in existence for no other reason than to capitalize on the success of its predecessor. While this latter point is likely accurate, the stupendously effective finished product dispels all viewer doubts within minutes. "Annabelle" not only withholds the dignity of "The Conjuring," but actually surpasses that film's fiendish parade of frights.

The year is 1967 as young married couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) anxiously prepare for the birth of their first child. Shortly after John surprises his wife with a rare vintage doll for which she had been searching, they narrowly survive a home invasion attack perpetrated by a pair of satanic cultists. The female invader—their ill-fated neighbors' brainwashed grown daughter—kills herself in their unborn baby's bedroom, the doll cradled in her arms. Mia and John struggle to move on from the tragedy, but spooky unexplained occurrences almost instantly befall them. With medical student John about to start his residency in Pasadena, CA, they take it as a positive sign to move, opting to leave behind the doll that somehow seemed to invite bad luck into their lives. Unfortunately, getting rid of an evil, soul-seeking otherworldly entity that has latched itself onto them won't be so easy.

Directed by John R. Leonetti (cinematographer of "The Conjuring" and 2011's "Insidious") with an accomplished zing for provoking a visceral aura of tension, "Annabelle" holds a modern relevance even as its period details and deliberate yet gripping pacing remind of Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" and William Friedkin's "The Exorcist." Leonetti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman resist the urge to turn their film into a sort of "Child's Play" redux with a toy running around killing people. Instead, they embrace the simple, impactful power of suggestion and the threat of what unimaginable horrors might spring up next. The jittery anticipation of what is to come and the picture's expert twisting of expectations seal the deal, with Leonetti setting up scenes that at first glance appear to be predictable and then taking a sharp 90-degree turn with them. Such is the case with quite a number of dizzyingly nightmarish set-pieces, one involving a cat-and-mouse game with a spectral presence and another involving a dark basement, a malfunctioning elevator, and a chase up a desolate apartment stairwell. The sheer dread worked up at key moments is thrilling, a reminder that horror can provide big fun and goosebump-inducing scares without dumbing itself down or reverting to extreme violence.

Is it by sheer coincidence that lead actress Annabelle Wallis (2011's "X-Men: First Class") shares the same name as the titular character? Despite her casting initially coming off as a sly inside joke, Wallis proves herself a great heroine of sympathetic, determined resolve. Her Mia is the person the viewer follows throughout, and she holds the frame with intelligence and a range of understandably heightened emotions. While John is not present to witness most of the unearthly goings-on around Mia, he never questions her claims of what she is experiencing. It is nice to see a significant other who fully trusts his partner, and Ward Horton (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street") takes advantage of his blessedly likable role. As Evelyn, a kindly book store owner whom Mia confides in when she starts researching hauntings, Alfre Woodard (2013's "12 Years a Slave") makes certain to not be a throwaway participant in the story. Evelyn has lived through unimaginable loss and guilt in her past—and her own touches with the other side—and her personal arc as she seeks to help her new friend is depicted with sensitivity and grace.

Annabelle isn't exactly the kind of cuddly, sweet-as-pie doll that one would imagine sitting in his or her infant's bedroom, but for the purposes of "Annabelle" it sure is an unsettling beacon of calamity. Director John R. Leonetti milks the porcelain monstrosity for all she's worth, but then crafts a surrounding plot and mythology that plays to people's fears of parenthood, occultism and the all-encompassing mysteries of the supernatural. Playfully eerie scenes taking advantage of children's foreboding crayon artwork and the indelible use of The Association's 1966 pop song "Cherish" are thoroughly inspired. Sadly, the timeline is not entirely consistent. Though the narrative should be taking place in 1967—it is, after all, a prequel to the 1968 segment in "The Conjuring"—a direct reference to Charles Manson and the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders is an anachronistic oversight that calls attention to itself, as is a newspaper dated 1970. Fortunately, gaffes of this or any other nature are rare in a film that respects its audience while sending them straight to the edge of their seats. For horror enthusiasts in search of a serious tingle in their spines, "Annabelle" delivers in spades.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman