If Pippi Longstocking and Ronald McDonald were to give birth to a pseudo-Victorian doll, it would look like Annabelle. With a half-smile that produces the impression of a diamond around her mouth, the rouged cheeks of a carnival barker, and forbiddingly arched eyebrows, the strange topography of Annabelle’s face provokes an equal measure of humor and unease. Director John R. Leonetti attempts a similar alchemy in Annabelle, but he only occasionally captures it when his camera isn’t leering at the doll’s awkward visage.
Where James Wan’s The Conjuring evoked its early-’70s period setting with a fetishistic attention to fabrics and audio-visual gadgetry, Leonetti’s prequel—set a year earlier—uses the era to half-heartedly recreate the California of Joan Didion’s The White Album. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and Peter (Ward Horton), avid churchgoers awaiting the birth of a child, have recently moved to the suburbs of Santa Monica. Mild discord lurks beneath the quaint setting. The couple have nice neighbors, but their teenage daughter is a runaway. Meanwhile, front doors are locked amid the hysteria about Charles Manson and his family, and Peter suffers bouts of selfishness as an overworked medical resident. Annabelle arrives on the scene as an apology to Mia, a looming addition to a nursery overstuffed with dolls. As soon as a TV reporter utters the words “Helter skelter,” a home invasion further unsettles the couple’s hopes for security, and Annabelle becomes a conduit for evil forces.
Bedeviled by paranormal activity, Mia and Peter move to a Pasadena high-rise, where the film’s casual reference to the star of Rosemary’s Baby becomes somewhat more fully realized. The apartment’s ominous purple paint and lumpy plaster walls mock the tranquility the couple and their newborn have sought out; so does Annabelle, who’s found her way into a moving box after being unceremoniously placed in a garbage bin. As the force inside Annabelle begins to rage anew, the attention to detail that elevated The Conjuring falls by the wayside. The film’s most startling moment comes during a demonic encounter in the building’s storage basement, where a malfunctioning elevator gag is drawn out to a degree of scary, gleeful absurdity. When the monster sends Mia scrambling up a darkened stairwell, James Kneist’s lackluster cinematography becomes distracting. His struggles with contrast extend beyond that scene, which disrupts the period vibe by looking like a callback to a DV feature circa 2002. The sunlight bleeding into Mia’s apartment makes her windows a shock of white, except when it doesn’t. When his camera creeps up to a possessed record player and dwells there for too long, we’re meant to sense a spirit, but the image is too flat to convey menace.
As such, Annabelle becomes an increasingly drab tale of domestic upheaval, even as the doll’s reign of chaos moves beyond Mia’s apartment. Where delivering jolts are concerned, Leonetti exhibits a knack for it. He throws them like one-two punches, leaving the audience staggered even as they become familiar with the pattern. When character becomes important, his film is perilously one-dimensional. Leonetti forgets to transplant that early aura of cult hysteria and community unease to Pasadena, and any potential for Wallis’s housewife to be more than an object of imperiled purity is squandered. Mia’s late-breaking friendship with a bookstore owner played by Alfre Woodard becomes crucial to the film, but Woodard is saddled with a black-savior role you may (justifiably) be hearing more from Spike Lee about. It’s all a far cry from Wan’s superior haunted-house movie, which embraced the thrill of the paranormal even as it respected its frazzled, earthbound characters.