‘Annabelle’ Review: ‘The Conjuring’ Prequel Is Surprisingly Poignant and Plenty Scary

Annabelle Wallis and Alfre Woodard deal with motherhood and a killer doll in this modestly ambitious horror tale

The late-60’s Satanic panic and housewifely ennui make for a surprisingly complementary mix of fear and paranoia in “Annabelle,” the prequel to last year’s horror hit “The Conjuring.” Though it’s not without concessions to formula, a sheen of glamour and a stab at real drama distinguish this persistently spooky tale of one woman’s private helter-skelter.

Manson and his Family terrorize on the nightly news, but they’re only a blip to newlyweds Mia and John (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton), who are too busy preparing for the birth of their first child to take much notice. Though Mia appears to be blessed with excellent sartorial taste, she coos over her husband’s most recent gift: a hideous collectible doll with lurid lips and eyes that glare hatefully at the world, dressed in a chintzy polyester dress with a proud, blood-red sash. (Her immediate adoration of that ugly thing rightly inspired mass sniggering at my screening.) That night, the doll seems to incite a wave of violence.

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Among the victims is Mia, who suffers a knife to her belly. Now bed-bound, she has little to do other than ignore “General Hospital” and watch her appliances – the housewife’s steady companions while her husband begins his medical residency – turn on her. The stove and the sewing machine switch on by themselves, eventually endangering Mia’s life. Things get no better after the birth of her daughter; the TV and record player develop nasty whims of their own, too.

None of these scare tactics are remotely original, and yet they’re wholly effective because they throw into relief Mia’s postpartum isolation, a difficult situation that might make a woman go crazy, even without the mysterious bumps in the night and the occasional ghost- and demon-sightings. All she has is her home. And now it’s seemingly trying to kill her.

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It’s easy to root for Mia, who invites enormous empathy because of Wallis’ warm, inquisitive presence. Given the period setting, the housewife feels like a Hitchcock blonde on her day off, running errands (and being frightened out of her wits) in white Keds and fashionably boxy t-shirts. Appealingly prim and undeniably smart, she bridges the gap between the past and the present, recalling Naomi Watts‘ classic beauty and Emma Roberts‘ modern pensiveness.

Director John Leonetti, the DP on “The Conjuring,” offers his star a chance to do some real acting, too. Wallis shares a couple of poignantly rueful scenes with Alfre Woodard, who plays the mournful proprietor of a local bookstore who intuits that Mia’s in trouble. (Woodard, of course, takes over Vera Farmiga‘s role in the franchise of classing up the joint.) Unfortunately, Woodard’s character is eventually forced into a problematic racial function in the conclusion, but until then she adds some thoughtful wrinkles to the film’s tender but exacting portrayal of motherhood.

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Though “Annabelle” boasts an understated mid-century chic in the costuming and production design, Leonetti could have benefitted from a few extra bucks in the budget. Certain camera pans and interstitials seem to have been filmed on inferior equipment, resulting in a grainer picture and jagged movements. It’s a distracting cheapness that betrays the picture’s modest but commendable narrative ambitions.

After all, what lingers in the mind far after the credits roll isn’t the doll’s inertness, but Wallis and Woodard at the kitchen table, looking into each other’s eyes and quietly discussing over tea when it’s okay for a mother to die. The answer isn’t pretty.