Don't let the relatively rosy reviews for 2013's The Conjuring fool you: Though it was a significantly better looking film than director James Wan's previous features (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious), it was still a lazily crafted series of scares that got by with the help of a cast who played well above the shoddy material.
The Conjuring was a hit, but I doubt even the most diehard devotees saw it and thought, ''I wonder if that creepy doll barely mentioned in the movie has some sort of narrative of her own?'' Enter Annabelle, a deeply insulting prequel produced by Wan and directed by The Conjuring cinematographer John R. Leonetti.
This disastrous exercise revolves around new mother Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) and the demon living within a doll who is trying to steal the soul of her infant daughter. Mia is married to the profoundly unlikeable John (Ward Horton), a medical student whose super power is to arrive just late enough to moments of possession to think his wife is crazy. There's also neighbor Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), who shows up mostly to give Mia a sounding boardthough she spends a massive swath of the film talking to herself or shouting things at apparitions. A priest (F. Murray Abraham lookalike Tony Amendola) helps to extend the running time a bit, but really, Annabelle should have been about 20 minutes long. After Mia and John's home is invaded by members of a Satanic cult, the gears grind sluggishly, with the same series of gags and red herrings unfolding until the ridiculous conclusion, which finds the up-until-then silent evil entity suddenly able to articulate his motives, mostly because the third act demands it. Along the way, there are countless references to Rosemary's Baby (even naming the main character Mia seems too cute by half), which breaks a cardinal rule of filmmaking: Never remind the audience of a great movie in the midst of your terrible movie.
The only thrill-building tool in Annabelle's kit involves things jumping out at you and making a loud noise, but you're better off watching those YouTube videos that do the exact same thing. We live in an incredible era for horror movies, and deep within the genre, filmmakers are crafting inspired and genuinely unnerving flicks that tap into subconscious fears and make salient points about the human experience. Sadly, horror fans seeking wide-release mainstream films are stuck with Annabelle, a poorly conceived jumble of half-baked pretension executed entirely without joy for the benefit of the easily bamboozled. For a superior experience, go buy a disturbing-looking doll that says ''Don't go see Annabelle'' when you pull its string. F