The best movies are the ones that introduce you to a totally new experience. One of those happened to me at Annabelle. I have literally never had anything even a little bit like this happen to me before, and I don't know if it will ever happen again, though I can live in hope: after the movie ended, and just as the first card in the end credits was starting to fade up, someone in the middle of the theater loudly asked, in a voice that had more despair in it than anger, "Everybody agrees that was absolutely terrible, right? Did anybody think that was good?" And not one of the twenty or so souls in the room challenged him, though a few of us laughed.*

It could be worse. I mean, I'm sure it could. Though at this particular moment in time, I'm having a bit of a hard time imagining how that could be the case. Director John R. Leonetti (a cinematographer by trade, but his directorial credits extend all the way back to 1997's all-time classic Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) and his filmmaking team manage to make a creepy-as-shit doll not scary. That's like Horror Cinema 101: creepy dolls and ventriloquist's dummies. The only bigger gimme is clowns. And yet, in Annabelle, the titular doll only manages to look profoundly stupid. "Perhaps the Annabelle doll is just too ridiculously overdone and veers straight into camp", I thought to myself, around the time that Leonetti and DP James Kniest favored it with a close-up that lovingly showcased its cracked grey skin and its enormous blood-shot eyes, like it had gotten its little doll self plowed on doll-sized whiskey sours. But that can't be the case - we already saw Annabelle in 2013, in The Conjuring, to which Annabelle is a sort of half-assed prequel, and the doll was terrifying as all hell back then.

So the only real solution is that Annabelle is just a piece of incompetent shit, and the agitated fellow in the movie theater with me was absolutely right. It's not just that the film is bad: there are far more horror films that are bad than otherwise. It's that it's bad to a degree that absolutely makes no sense: even just regurgitating every single scare tactic from every single haunting movie in recent memory should have produced a somewhat more functional genre film than this terrible exercise in cinematic lard and self-sabotaging mistakes at every corner. There's a scene in which the female lead, Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) is trapped in a basement with what certainly looks like Satan, or anyway a charcoal grey job that resembles the lazy "ooh, the Devil" design that horror filmmakers rest on when they're not interested in being bold. She gets on the elevator, and pushes 6. The doors close, the elevator grinds, the doors open, it's still the basement. She shines the flashlight around. Nothing is there. She pushes the "door close" button. This happens no fewer than four times, and Satan never does show up - never even puts his shiny black claws in the elevator door at the last minute to freak Mia out real good. I would call it laughably inept, except that, dear reader, I was not laughing. Just silently stewing and becoming good and pissed off that the film had decided that a busted elevator with nothing attacking it was the stuff of top-notch skin-crawling excitement

Or, ooh, how's this for ineptitude: in one scene, an artificial long take is created by stitching two shorter takes together, one as Mia walks to the front door of her house, one as she walks through her house. Garden-variety stuff. Emmanuel Lubezki has made a career out of it. And yet clear as day, you can see where the filmmakers threw in a really short dissolve to marry the takes, and it's as believable as those jump cuts in an old movie where the only way to make an object appear or disappear was to stop the camera, have everybody stand still, and hope like hell nobody shifted so much that their position in the frame shifted. When that happens in a film from the '40s, it's part of the buy-in you make to watch a film of that vintage. When it happens to an all-digital production from 2014, it is acutely disgusting.

The movie itself is a grab-bag of lazy notions from every other horror movie of the last five or ten years. A very pregnant Mia and her husband John (Ward Horton) are young marrieds in Santa Monica, CA, in 1972. He's applying for his medical residency, she's… it doesn't matter what she does, since she's about to be taken out of commission for a while. They have a kindly pair of neighbors, and the neighbors have a long-lost daughter named Annabelle, who left to join a cult. And one fateful night, she and her cult boyfriend creep back home to ritually murder her parents. When John goes to investigate the screaming Mia heard, they follow him back home, where they stab her in the belly. The baby survives, but the doctor insists that she stay in bed as much as remotely possible for the rest of the pregnancy.

So "Mia", "John", pregnant, Satan: it's an overt Rosemary's Baby nod, though by mostly limiting itself to stealing the names of that film's lead actors, it's actually something of a classy and restrained one. But as long as Roman Polanski is on the table - or even if he otherwise wasn't - hauling up the "Southern California cultists stab a pregnant woman" plot point (the Manson Family is even name-dropped in a news report) is neither classy nor restrained by any possible definition of those terms. I would go so far as to call it shockingly crass and exploitative to call upon the memory of Sharon Tate's horrible murder in such a direct and unthinking way. Annabelle, folks: there's no wrong way to hate it. But back to the plot.

It's during her convalescence that Mia starts to notice odd things, all of them clustering around the hideous-as-sin collector's doll that John bought for her the morning of the killings, and which Annabelle was holding as she committed suicide that night. We who saw The Conjuring - or even Annabelle's prologue, where two young women freaked out as they described their experience with the doll to an unheard offscreen investigator who the film rather obviously sets up to be a cameoing Patrick Wilson. Except it never returns to the frame narrative at the end, denying us this cameo, and so, fuck it (I will concede the possibility of a post-credits scene, but waiting to find out wasn't a priority at the moment the film ended). Anyway, I was saying that we know that Annabelle-the-possessed doll is behind it, which frees up the filmmakers to stage lots of menacing shots of the doll as the music booms and nothing happens for many long seconds at a time. It takes the help of a pair of Wise Ethnics - Father Perez (Tony Amendola), the family priest, and Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), a bookstore owner with an interest in the occult, but it's not an occult bookstore, because that would be lazy writing - to clear up what's going on, and what is going on is the usual "the demon wants your newborn baby" folderol, with the usual lightbulbs bursting and devil faces appear in shadows and popcorn exploding and setting the kitchen on fire.

If the film does anything worthwhile, it's that it gets its '70s signifiers all lined up properly: the cloths and props are a little showy at times ("hey, I got you a VINTAGE BAG OF DORITOS! WHO WANTS DORITOS?" screeches one scene), but for the most part the settings specific enough that we can't forget it, but unforced enough that it doesn't get in the way of the story, which is almost a shame. And when Woodard shows up, she's like a cool breeze on a hot day, providing the movie with an authoritative, stable presence that comes amazingly close to making some scenes not-unpleasant to watch (I might add that, even by horror movie standards, what happens to Annabelle's solitary African-American character is a malarial swamp of bad racial representation). Having said that, I'm tapped out of compliments: there's nothing else that's tolerable in Annabelle, let alone actively good. The acting is horrible, especially Horton's, with his wide-eyed "golly willickers!" attitude that suggests he accidentally researched the 1910s when building his character, not the 1970s. But the actors can only be blamed so much, what with the crudely functional dialogue they are obliged to deliver, and the broken motivations they are given to play (for a woman whose single driving motivation is her baby's safety, Mia sure does seem to leave her alone in the haunted apartment a lot). And it's just even a wee tiny bit scary: every jump scare announces itself and is diluted by the half-dozen jump scares preceding it that never bothered to show up, and the creepiness of the "Satan wants your baby" routine is undercut by how much the baby feels like a concept the actors are playing, not a living being that parents desperately want to protect. Also by how much this is plainly a film that won't kill its baby.

It's useless, completely useless: clumsily made and criminally underwritten. If you had asked me if a 2014 movie about a baby and devil-worshippers had even a prayer of being worse than Devil's Due, I'd have laughed right in your face, but oh, how strong a bid Annabelle puts in for itself in the race to be the worst horror film of 2014!

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)
The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves, 2019)
Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman, 2019)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (Chaves, 2021)

*A few minutes later, he was still vividly distressed, as he and I and the friend I went with discussed the film briefly at the urinals, but that is maybe shading into TMI territory.