In Annabelle we learn how the doll in The Conjuring came to be such a demonic nuisance to all who own it. John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) Form are an expectant couple living in California. It’s 1969 and the nation is gripped by reports of the Manson murders. John presents Mia with a much sought-after doll to complete her collection; we immediately recognize it as trouble. The early scenes in Annabelle are the film’s most effective moments. They set up the premise quite well and don’t really require a blow-by-blow recap. Suffice it to say that the doll isn’t inherently evil but soon is possessed by the spirit of someone named Annabelle. A home invasion at the Form household exudes quite a bit of pure terror—this could really happen, which makes it infinitely more skin-crawling than the doll antics that follow.
As the Form’s deal with the doll that won’t go away, a bookstore owner with a tragic past, Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), intervenes. The great Woodard certainly adds class to the cast, but she’s trapped in an underwritten role. Father Perez (Tony Amendola) is a priest who also tries to cast the evil spirit out of the doll. These possession movies can’t seem to exist without a stoic priest who believes he can defeat the demon. Perez is particularly naïve, which leads to a few solid visual jolts.
The appearance of Annabelle in human form whenever someone is handling the doll is frightening, especially when she charges the hapless doll holder. The doll itself isn't really all that freaky on its own. Like the opening home invasion, the tensest scenes don't depend on the doll. Another stylish highpoint is a nightmarish sequence involving a dark basement and an elevator that won't movie. As director John R. Leonetti (cinematographer of The Conjuring; that film’s director James Wan is on-board only as producer) huffs and puffs to create an epic climactic battle, with the life of the Form’s newborn child at stake, Annabelle devolves further into tired horror clichés.
Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray presentation offers exactly what one expects of a modern studio release. James Kniest’s digital cinematography has a warmer, more colorful look than The Conjuring. It looks splendid in 1080p high definition. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix features window-rattling LFE activity that’s really one of the best things about Annabelle. The sound design is quite dynamic and thankfully the abundance of surround channel activity makes the most of it.
The special features are highlighted by about 20 minutes of deleted scenes. There are also four short “behind the scenes” featurettes that strain to play up the whole “true story” angle. In fact, the filmmakers even try to claim that the prop Annabelle doll itself was responsible for a cast member being injured by a falling light. It’s played pretty straight, but I think they’re all just having fun with the concept of a “demonic” doll actually existing (that is, I truly hope they don’t believe any of this nonsense). The Blu-ray Combo Pack also includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.
I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of Annabelle again in the near future. As long as the doll continues inspiring moviegoers to show up at theaters, this franchise won’t be going away any time soon. But unfortunately Annabelle simply isn’t the well-crafted chiller that James Wan delivered with The Conjuring.