[Screen It]


(2014) (Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton) (R)

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Horror: A married couple must contend with a possessed doll that's serving as a conduit for a demonic entity that's after a soul.
It's the early 1970s, and Mia (ANNABELLE WALLIS) and John Gordon (WARD HORTON) live in Santa Monica where he's about to start his residency and she's expecting their first child. One night, there's a disturbance at the home of their next-door neighbors, Pete (BRIAN HOWE) and Sharon Higgins (KERRY O'MALLEY), involving their young adult daughter, Annabelle (TREE O'TOOLE), who's recently run away from home to join a cult. When she returns, it's with her fellow cult member boyfriend and they murder her parents, and then try to do the same to John and Mia when they intervene.

The boyfriend stabs Mia, but is then shot dead by the police, while Annabelle takes her own life, with some of her blood dripping down onto one of Mia's prized collector dolls. Mia and her unborn child survive, but enough spooky things start happening that she and John move their newly delivered baby to a large apartment in Pasadena. Yet, the seemingly supernatural events have followed them, as has the doll that John earlier threw out.

That results in Mia eventually confiding in her new neighbor, Evelyn (ALFRE WOODARD), who runs a nearby book store, while also seeking out more information about Annabelle from Det. Clarkin (ERIC LADIN). He informs her that she belonged to a satanic cult and was trying to summon some sort of demonic force, although he doesn't believe any of that.

A person who does is Father Perez (TONY AMENDOLA), the couple's priest who agrees to help and tries to intervene. But now knowing that the demon is after a soul, Mia is determined to do whatever it takes to protect her baby.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's funny how things that we love as kids often end up creeping us out as adults. For many a child, clowns are magical beings, likely due to their colorful outfits and exaggerated expressions via wild facial paint. And it doesn't hurt that they usually only show up or are seen on special occasions. Viewed more often during childhood are dolls, and while boys (and girls) might play with action figures, there's nothing really spooky about them then or in later years. But there's just something about dolls, though, with those realistic eyes in a frozen expression that gives many an adult the willies.

Given that, it's surprising that such little figures haven't been used more often to create big frights in horror movies. Sure, "Poltergeist" scored the daily double by having a clown doll terrorize the boy in the story, but beyond Fats the ventriloquist dummy in "Magic," most of the others have mainly been relegated to so-called "B" movies.

That changed a bit with 2013's "The Conjuring," a decently spooky horror flick based on real-life accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Annabelle doll -- with her cut across her eye and cheek highlighting her creepy, frozen stare -- didn't have a major part in the flick, but was spooky enough in her appearances that she now gets her own spin-off in "Annabelle."

A prequel to "The Conjuring," the film takes place around the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of Charles Manson and his followers. That brief historical reference sets the stage for another cult to evoke a supernatural growth -- via some suicidal blood that drips down and flows into the eye of our titular doll -- that arrives to terrorize a wife (Annabelle Wallis) who's about to have her first child.

Following the harrowing cult attack, Mia starts experiencing odd events around the home, most of which her doctor-in-training husband (Ward Horton) initially tries to dismiss as easily explainable things or just her imagination run wild. But when their house nearly burns down from one of them, they move to a new place across the city, only to have the spooky stuff follow them there.

Working from a script by Gary Dauberman, director John R. Leonetti then introduces a few new characters -- Tony Amendola as the couple's priest and Alfre Woodard as their new neighbor and bookstore owner -- who end up involved in the proceedings. While we know where the man of the cloth fits in, Woodward's character introduces some uneasiness since you never know about such secondary characters in such films.

While there's nothing really new here in terms of tried and true scare tactics, the filmmaker does manage to inject a number of highly effective jump moments, and uses some unique camera angles to up the fright ante. He's even more successful in one particular sequence involving a basement storage area, a baby carriage seemingly straight out of "Rosemary's Baby," a creepy demon and an elevator that stubbornly refuses to lift our heroine out of harm's way. There's also some decent bits of comic relief (and stress reduction), while Wallis and Horton create mostly believable characters who we do end up caring for even if they obviously stay far too long in bad places.

The interesting thing -- and a point that might disappoint horror fans who dig creepy dolls -- is that our title "character" really isn't that active in terms of being the catalyst of what's going on. Instead, and serving as a conduit for the evil stuff, she's more of a red herring, serving to goose the viewer by simple static views of her or Mia reaching out to touch her. Otherwise, her movements, if you will, are all the result of other supernatural entities and thus the direct danger stemming from her is fairly dampened.

In the end, the thrills, chills and frights are in enough abundance that fans of such films likely won't be disappointed, while those dragged along and who easily scare will have enough to spook them. For yours truly, I enjoyed the handling of some of the scary moments, but this is all just superficial material rather than the type of horror storytelling that effectively burrows its way into your psyche and stays with you days, months or even years later. "Annabelle" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 30, 2014 / Posted October 3, 2014

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