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Warner Bros. // R // January 20, 2015
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 19, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The good news, I guess, is that if you haven't gotten around to seeing The Conjuring, this feature-length spin-off stands completely on its own. A few lines vaguely reference the Warrens, the psychic ghostbusters from that earlier film who aren't even mentioned by name here in-dialogue, but that's about it.

If you have seen The Conjuring -- and, with a box office tally north of $300 million, the smart money says you have -- let me save you some time. Grab that other Blu-ray disc off the shelf, fast forward to all the scenes with Annabelle, and mash stop afterwards. The Conjuring accomplishes a hell of a lot more in those few minutes than Annabelle can be bothered to deliver in an hour and a half. I mean, I get it. I don't know how anyone could experience The Conjuring and not shamble away with the image of that nightmarishly creepy doll seared into his brain. When you're coming off one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, sequels and spinoffs are practically a given. It's just that Annabelle is about as limp, lifeless, and shameless a cash-in as they come.

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Flip the calendar back to the tailend of the 1960s, and then picture Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis strolling in as the Form family. They're a picture-perfect young married couple cut from the Rock Hudson / Doris Day cloth. Mia is carrying her first child and looks like she could pop any day now, while not-quite-a-doctor John is on the verge of starting his residency. They know they'll have a lot to juggle in the coming months, but really, it's all sunny, suburban bliss. John's such a sweetheart that he gives his wife an impossibly rare doll to complete one of her sets...just because he loves her. Awww...! The only hiccup is that their neighbors' estranged daughter is a member of the Disciples of the Ram, and Annabelle and her unwashed hippie boyfriend decide to do the whole Helter Skelter thing. The two of 'em brutally slaughter the folks next door, and the Forms almost bite it too. Before meeting her own grisly end, Annabelle scrawls some arcane symbol on the wall in her own blood and grunts one final breath, clutching Mia's shiny new doll in her crimson-stained arms.

You probably don't need me to spell out that some sinister force has invaded that increasingly creepy looking doll. Doors open and close by themselves. Records start playing on their own. Rocking chairs creak ominously without so much as a push. This hellspawn wields such impossible power that it can turn on all the burners on the stove and make off-brand Jiffy Pop. I know, all the hair just stood up on my neck too! This malevolent force follows them from Santa Monica all the way to Pasadena; even the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-10 cannot hope to stand in the way of this waking nightmare. While John is toiling away at all hours at the hospital, Mia is all but trapped in their apartment building with newborn little Leah. Whatever this entity is, it's losing interest in merely toying with its prey and is starting to sharpen its claws...

There are glimmers of a better movie lurking around in here somewhere. If I were a first-year film student, I could probably hash together an essay about how the Forms represent the death of the clean-scrubbed nuclear family ideal and how Mia's struggle is a metaphor for the oppressive expectations of domesticity in a changing world. That's probably giving Annabelle more credit than it deserves, though. Borderline-nothing about the movie works. For one, John and Mia are basically blank slates. If you do get around to watching Annabelle, try to describe John without saying "husband" or "doctor", and try to describe Mia without saying "mother", "wife", or "scared". Horton and Wallis are earnest and likeable enough as actors, but they're unable to elevate such lackluster material to ever come across as actual people. So much of the effectiveness of The Conjuring stems from its emphasis on characterization, but that's clearly an afterthought here. The most interesting characters in the movie -- Alfre Woodard as a neighbor struggling with more figurative demons and Tony Amendola as a priest attempting to lend the Forms a much-needed hand -- get disappointingly short thrift. My inner first-year film student would probably have a lot to write about how the only minority characters in the film are there to sacrifice themselves to try to save Ken and Barbie, but that's an argument for another time.

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I know, I know; you're rolling your eyes at all that and waiting for me to answer the big question: "is Annabelle scary?" Not really. Admittedly, there are a few really solid jolts: a couple of supernatural shoves and some sort of apparition storming into the room. A couple of sequences are unnervingly intense. One early scene cuts back and forth between popcorn on the stove while a sewing needle frantically stabs up and down, and it wound me up so tightly that I genuinely couldn't sit down. I nervously paced around the room as it unfolded, with these close-ups of Mia's fingers millimeters away from the needle, and... Nah. There's no real payoff. Annabelle is woefully incapable of generating any real dread or atmosphere. The overwhelming majority of the supernatural happenings are room temperature clich├ęs you've seen done better a couple hundred thousand times already. In theory, this is a more classic approach; very little is grisly or gruesome after the home invasion, and much of the horror is unseen. Again, in theory, I'm all over that. One of the most unnerving moments in any horror film I've ever seen is a rubber ball slowly bouncing down the stairs in The Changeling. Saddled with its unremarkable cast, weak writing, and a lack of atmosphere, Annabelle fails to make any of those moments work. The more overtly horrific sequences -- foam latex demon makeup and all -- generally come across as ridiculous rather than unnerving.

Annabelle isn't the worst horror flick I've ever endured, and that's about the best I can come up with here. The movie generally squanders its period setting. The premise and most of the scares are leftovers from better movies that just get lazily tossed in the microwave. (Annabelle really wants you to point at the screen and say " in Rosemary's Baby!", down to the name of its female lead. Why you'd have an extended Polanski homage while recreating the savage murder of Sharon Tate, I have no idea.) The pacing is excruciatingly glacial, to the point that I'm writing this a full day after watching Annabelle, and I'm pretty sure Mia is still getting off the elevator and shining her flashlight in the basement for the eight quadrillionth time. This is at best a marginal rental, and even that's really only for frothing-at-the-mouth fanatics of The Conjuring.

The highest praise there is to muster about Annabelle's visuals is that they're technically sound. The unmistakeably digital photography translates well enough to Blu-ray, reproduced with razor-sharp clarity and an impressive level of detail. The modestly saturated palette attempts to evoke its late sixties setting, particularly the soft blues in Annabelle Wallis' wardrobe that are a dead-on match for Mia Farrow's in Rosemary's Baby. It's an appreciated change of pace from the monosaturated palette, spastic quick-cutting, and overly contrasty visuals of so many other genre flicks anymore. The authoring of this disc is first-rate, not dragged down by any posterization, video noise, or sputters or stutters in the encoding either. Annabelle isn't exactly going to be remembered for its accomplished cinematography or unforgettable visual flair, but I don't think the movie as it is could realistically look any better on Blu-ray.

Annabelle has wrapped its spindly, demonic fingers around a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, with the movie's AVC encode having essentially one layer to itself while the extras spill over onto the next.

Annabelle's lossless, 24-bit, six-channel aural assault is easily the best thing about this Blu-ray disc. Every last element of the mix is reproduced cleanly and clearly, not marred by so much as a flicker of distortion. The movie's dialogue never struggles for placement in the mix, no matter how hellishly chaotic things get. Dynamic range is outstanding, from the gutteral growl of its most sinister strings to the frenzied, orchestral stabbing that punctuates so many of Annabelle's scares. The sound design seizes full advantage of every available channel, with the unrelenting low-frequency pounding in the final act leaving the greatest impression. There's so much to grouse and groan about when it comes to Annabelle, but this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack really doesn't leave any room for complaint.

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Three Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (640kbps) have also clawed their way onto this disc: one in French, another in Spanish (Latino), and the last in Portuguese. Subtitles are provided in each of these languages as well, along with an English (SDH) stream.

  • Deleted Scenes (21 min.; HD): Annabelle's eight deleted scenes can be viewed individually or plowed through all at once. Several of them feature a character that was completely gutted out of the movie proper: the Forms' cornball landlord, Mr. Fuller. His scenes are clumsily acted dead air, although one of them would've better established an unreliable elevator that would later torment Mia at the worst possible time. This reel is a healthy mix of placesetting and scares. Hell, one of them is labeled "Demonic Kidnapping / Carnage", and it delivers. Well, maybe not on the "carnage" part when it comes to this extended climax, but...yeah. You've got a demonic hot bath, a baby bottle with dead flies or whatever in it, a small army of cats invading the nursery, sinister scratches, and an otherworldly tug under the bed. It's not hard to imagine why pretty much all of this was yanked out of the final edit, though it is a little more interesting to watch than usual.
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  • Featurettes (20 min.; HD): Four making-of featurettes round out the disc's extras. "The Curse of Annabelle" (6 min.) delves into how Annabelle uses a rather ordinary married life as its springboard into the supernatural, then exploring its approach to horror and all the creepy little things that happened off-camera during production. "Bloody Tears of Possession" (6 min.) focuses on the home invasion sequence that was predominantly captured in one ambitious take, doubling as a bit of a love letter to director John R. Leonetti. "Dolls of the Demon" (6 min.) touches on the design of Annabelle, and there's also a peek at what went into the grisly fate that the rest of Mia's doll collection would suffer. Finally, "A Demonic Process" (5 min.) follows composer Joseph Bishara as he's transformed by KNB into a demon.

Annabelle comes packaged in a slipcover, and the usual DVD and UltraViolet digital copy code are riding shotgun as well.

The Final Word
Annabelle doesn't do a whole hell of a lot to set itself apart from the glut of direct-to-video horror cheapquels that have been soullessly churned out over the past I-don't-know-how-many years. This one just somehow managed to get dumped in theaters instead, impossibly raking in a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. Annabelle ditches basically everything that led to The Conjuring being such a phenomenon -- its talented cast, skilled production design, unparalleled visual eye, any semblance of mood or atmosphere -- instead content to settle for an unforgettably creepy doll and an armful of stale haunted house tropes. A couple of intense sequences and some solid jolts keep Annabelle from feeling like a complete waste of time, but there's nothing in this lazy, uninspired, hopelessly derivative spinoff that warrants a second look. Rent It.
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