The scares are cheap but periodically effective in “Annabelle,” a cut-rate spinoff from James Wan’s superlative haunted-house hit “The Conjuring” that (partly) makes up in crude shock effects what it lacks in craft, atmosphere and just about every other department. Designed mainly as a starring vehicle for the eponymous, creepy-as-hell doll (who easily outclasses her human co-stars), this WB/New Line quickie will slake the thirst of die-hard genre fans put out by the abysmal “Dracula Untold.” Mere casual fright fans are advised to wait for the proper sequel, “The Conjuring 2,” due in 2015.
Among the many objects from paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren’s cabinet of demonically possessed curiosities that got their closeups in “The Conjuring,” the indisputable scene-stealer was Annabelle, a pigtailed, rosy-cheeked wooden moppet who looked like Howdy Doody in drag, or Raggedy Ann after a long night in the wrong part of town. Now, in “Annabelle,” director John R. Leonetti (Wan’s longtime cinematographer) and screenwriter Gary Dauberman take us back to 1969, when Annabelle was just a normal, ordinary (if still freaky-looking) doll in the collection of a Santa Monica housewife (Annabelle Wallis) and her med-student husband (Ward Horton).
That the wife is named Mia and her husband John is the first of many signs that the makers of “Annabelle” have a major jones for “Rosemary’s Baby” and, by extension, Roman Polanski. This becomes all the more apparent in a grisly sequence exploitatively modeled on the Manson Family’s Tate-Labianca murders, in which the deranged, Satan-worshiping hippie daughter of Mia and John’s next-door neighbors violently attacks the couple in their home (with Satan-worshiping hippie boyfriend in tow), resulting in a kitchen knife being plunged straight into Mia’s bulging belly. Miraculously, the injured parties survive (the hippies do not), but when Mia returns from the hospital, something doesn’t seem quite right around the Good Housekeeping homestead. In particular, something doesn’t seem quite right about Annabelle.
In the pantheon of cinematic devil dolls, Annabelle plays a game of inches, changing her position on the shelf or methodically rocking back and forth in a creaky chair, but never full-on running through the house wielding a weapon like the diminutive kewpie doll of Dan Curtis’s 1975 cult classic “Trilogy of Terror,” or Chucky of the “Child’s Play” franchise (who would sure make a swell beau for Annabelle if he weren’t already taken). But no matter: Wherever Annabelle goes, trouble seems sure to follow, in the form of mysteriously slamming doors and malfunctioning appliances (TV, oven, sewing machine), all of which Leonetti milks for every ounce of ominous portent (though, really, there is only so much one can do with a demonically possessed tin of stove-top popcorn).
It’s only when John’s residency occasions a family move to tree-lined Pasadena that “Annabelle” brings out the bigger guns, including imperiled baby carriages, ectoplasmic apparitions and a full-on winged demon, courtesy of makeup effects wizards Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Whereas Wan (who takes a producer credit here) is probably the contemporary horror stylist the closest in spirit to the ‘70s maestros (De Palma, Friedkin, Polanski) “Annabelle” can’t stop aping, Leonetti (who previously helmed the deservedly forgotten “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” and “The Butterfly Effect 2”) is more of a crash-and-grab pastiche artist who rarely moves past superficial homage. Pretty much on cue, a friend-or-foe neighbor rears her head (Alfre Woodard, in the Ruth Gordon part), a God-fearing priest (Tony Amendola, a dead ringer for F. Murray Abraham) arrives on the scene, and a turntable won’t stop playing The Association singing “Cherish” (used here the way John Carpenter used “Mr. Sandman” in “Halloween”) — before, literally and figuratively, all hell breaks loose.
But when it comes to “Annabelle’s” five or six big stinger moments, Leonetti manages to deliver the jolts, and if audiences are sure to head home complaining about how dumb and predictable it all was, many may also find themselves nursing their significant others’ lightly bruised forearms. In this, Leonetti gets a big hand from editor Tom Elkins and composer Joseph Bishara (“Insidious,” “The Conjuring”), whose score is still doing basso profundo backflips even as the end credits are rolling.
Obviously constrained by a small budget, production designer Bob Ziembicki can’t hope to replicate the well-appointed period design of Wan’s film (a couple of period cars are about all you get here), while cinematographer James Kniest’s lighting has more in common with the daytime soaps Mia watches on her fuzzy TV than with Leonetti’s lushly textured lensing on the previous film.