Sunday, October 12, 2014

Film Review: Annabelle

"Annabelle"  **** (out of ****)

To make a truly effective horror film seems so difficult nowadays. Audiences have seen it all before. We know the horror movie cliches; scary music, POV shots of the killer, as suspiciously no one sees them, figures appearing in the background, loud noises at night. Audiences have become so jaded most horror movies feel like they are playing it by the numbers.

Some of that changed last year with the release of "The Conjuring" (2013) which proved to be a box-office and critical success. I enjoyed the movie so much I even placed it on my "top ten films of 2013" list. It was a throw back to classic horror films of the 1970s.

It was in "The Conjuring", which was based on a true story, we first learned of a doll named Annabelle. Annabelle we are told is possessed by a powerful demonic force, a force which still remains inside the doll. To contain it, a priest blesses the doll on a regular basis.

"Annabelle" is something of a semi-prequel giving us the background story of how the doll became possessed and how it eventually ended up in the hands of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators in "The Conjuring".

It would seem "Annabelle" was just an attempt to cash in on the success of the previous movie. People enjoyed that movie, thought it was scary, they will hear about this movie, associate with "The Conjuring" and go see it. Not a new marketing ploy but an obvious one.

Walking into "Annabelle" I thought the same thing however, I am happy to say I was wrong. "Annabelle" is just as effective as "The Conjuring". Although this movie uses some tie-ins to "The Conjuring" by showing clips of that movie, it could have existed on its own without any reference to any other movie.

My opinion though is a minority opinion. The critics (sheep) have all decided to unite against the movie, feeling it doesn't compare to the "The Conjuring" and isn't scary. The movie has done well at the box-office, so far, I would assume largely because it has been released in October and because of Halloween, audiences are in the mood for a good scare.

"Annabelle", which in part is based on a true story, strangely the movie is not marketing itself as such, takes place in 1968 and centers around a young married couple; John and Mia Gordon (played by Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis). Some have suggested the reason for the names of these characters has to do with John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow, who starred in the classic Roman Polanski film "Rosemary's Baby" (1968).

The young couple is about to expect their first child when one night Mia notices, through her bedroom window, her neighbors are attacked by a cult gang, a la Charles Manson. The cultist find their way in John and Mia's home as one of them takes hold of a doll John bought Mia. The police kill the cultist and when a drop of blood lands on the doll, an evil spirit possesses it.

The reason I feel "Annabelle" works so well is because the movie takes its time setting up this story and keeps the audience in anticipation of the frights. It is the exact reason the movie has quite a few detractors. They say the movie doesn't offer enough scares. I will confess the movie does not have a scare per minute. Long periods of time go between scares, but, the anticipation of something about to happen grips you. You pay attention to what is going on on-screen. And because the suspension is building, when a scare doesn't happen you aren't disappointed, you are almost relieved because you say to yourself, thank goodness something didn't happen, I don't know if I could have taken a scare.

I like horror movies that take their time telling their story. That are deliberate in their scares. I like horror films that work on a psychological level. And I like horror movies that are about characters first and frights second. The older I get, I am no longer interested in slasher, blood and guts movies. Seeing characters mutilated on-screen by a serial killer are not scary to me, they are just disgusting. "Annabelle" is not a disgusting blood and guts movie and I appreciate that.

As the picture goes on the intensity builds. It is in the last act of the movie when "Annabelle" goes for broke and goes into full fright mode. When "Annabelle" goes for a scare the scares hit their mark. It is careful to make sure their is no missed opportunity. Some feel the missed opportunity is that Annabelle the doll is not active enough. Again, I go back to my statement, it is the anticipation of something about to happen, the gradually build up of tension which makes the movie work.

If you require a great deal of violence to scare you, "Annabelle" is not a movie for you. But, if bumps in the night scare you, if you believe the mind can play tricks on you then "Annabelle" is a movie for you.

"Annabelle" also feature some very good performances. Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis are presented as real people. We can relate to them. They are a little slow to realize the dangers of the doll, but, they respond to it the way others would.

The movie also does a good job establishing the time period. The filmmaker, John R. Leonetti, has a good eye for detail, which shouldn't be a surprise since he is also a cinematographer. He shoot "The Conjuring", "Insidious" (2010), which I also thought was very effective, and "Child's Play 3" (1991).

This Halloween "Annabelle" delivers a good amount of scares. It is a carefully crafted story with some very good performances and a wonderful visual eye. I wish we would get more horror films like "Annabelle" and "The Conjuring" in the future.