In the summer of 2013, a spooky movie called “The Conjuring” struck terror in America’s hearts and pants, telling a “fact-based” story about husband-and-wife paranormal investigators checking out a worried family’s haunted house in 1971. Among the bedeviled artifacts this couple collected (one that had no bearing on the main story) was a creepy doll named Annabelle. I don’t know how the math works, but somehow this means that there’s now a movie called “Annabelle,” about the doll’s origins.
Even more improbably, “Annabelle” isn’t bad like you’d expect a rushed spinoff to be. Though the plot and screenplay (by Gary Dauberman) are strictly by the numbers, it’s all executed with goosebumpy skill by director John R. Leonetti, who’s usually a cinematographer and has an eye for a well-composed shot. He pulls off a few legitimate scares, all visual in nature, and maintains a passably creepy tone for much of the film. It’s not in the same league as “The Conjuring,” which was more agile in its treatment of familiar plot devices, but it’s a worthy entry for a chilly October (offer void in areas not yet chilly).
Devil-faced porcelain nightmare Annabelle comes into our lives in 1970, when a pregnant Southern California newlywed named Mia (Annabelle Wallis), a doll collector, receives it as a gift from her doting husband, John (Ward Horton), a medical student (who, now that I think about it, looks like a mannequin). So far the doll is hideous looking but not evil.
Then there is An Incident (clumsily telegraphed by TV news reports about the Manson family and references to the neighbors’ runaway daughter) that traumatizes Mia and John, and which also seems to render Annabelle haunted. Kind of. This is our conclusion because of the many sinister close-ups of Annabelle’s unmoving face, which we watch closely for any sign of malevolence. It’s the characters’ conclusion because the weird stuff that happens in their house — TV interference, self-operating sewing machines, willful record players — keeps happening even after they move.
You’ve seen this situation before, of course; like I said, “Annabelle” isn’t especially deft at hiding its intentions. A scene early in the film establishes that John and Mia are church-going Catholics, which means the story’s going to involve the devil and a priest (Tony Amendola) at some point. Two neighbor kids have one unmotivated scene of random eeriness before disappearing from the movie entirely. Alfre Woodard plays a spiritual-minded bookseller who befriends Mia and tells her what she needs to know, when she needs to know it. The Bible verse quoted at the beginning of the movie proves relevant at the end.
Nonetheless, Leonetti and star Annabelle Wallis (yes, it’s freaky that she has the same name as the demon doll) travel these well-worn paths with gusto. A dark basement and a malfunctioning elevator are good for a few suspenseful moments in one sequence; elsewhere, the sudden appearance of a ghost (or demon, or whatever the hell) is often used to great unnerving effect. Wallis can scream and cry with the best of them. I wish her character did more documenting and explaining, to avoid the “my husband thinks I’m crazy” subthread, but maybe some cliches are unavoidable. This isn’t great horror by any means, but it’s a solid, respectable effort that can tide us over till something great arrives to REALLY scare our pants off.
B- (1 hr., 38 min.; )