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Review: 'Annabelle' wants to be the Polanski of the recent ghost movie trend

The "Conjuring" spinoff "Annabelle" details the origin story of the creepy doll, and it's well-directed and Polanski-iesh enough to not all be dumb.

That creepy from "The Conjuring" gets her own movie! Good for her! Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures That creepy from "The Conjuring" gets her own movie! Good for her!
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

'Annabelle'
Director: John R. Leonetti
Stars:Annabelle Wallis,Ward Horton
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

To be frank, ghost movies are stupid. That goes extra for the ones, like “Annabelle,” that claim to be based on (or rather, “inspired”) by fact. There’s never been anything approaching hard evidence of the supernatural, and ghost movies amount to exaggerations that do humanity a disservice by perpetuating the myth of their legitimacy. That being said, ghost movies can also be awesome. The key is to do the cinematic equivalent of snookering the gullible: The best use camerawork, lighting and even tastefully employed effects to lull viewers into abandoning logic and rational thinking and allowing one’s self to be goosed. Some do that as well as tie it all into real anxieties. The worst clog you over the head with over-the-top effects, worried you won’t succumb without force.

“Annabelle” does all of this. It’s the best and worst of ghost movies in one frustrating, periodically gripping, periodically asinine spook opus. It’s a quickie spin-off of a monster hit, “The Conjuring,” but it only feels that way half the time. The budget is smaller, the effects weaker, the actors cheaper, but horror has never needed money to work: just filmmakers who know where to place the camera and how dimly to light the scene.

It's an origin story for the creepy doll from the beginning of “The Conjuring,” which shows how it became possessed (or haunted, or whatever the paranormal term is) and had its first mission: making life miserable for a nice stay-at-home mom Mia (Annabelle Wallis) in Manson-haunted 1969. After their Santa Monica house is destroyed by the doll's power — which turned on the sewing machine, then heated up Jiffy Pop until the kitchen went ablaze — Mia and her supportive but workaholic husband (Ward Horton) toss the creepy doll in the trash bin and relocate to a noisy, creaky Pasadena apartment. But the doll mysteriously (really mysteriously) shows up there anyway, wreaking havoc on Mia and her newborn while dad’s at work.

Alfre Woodard (with Annabelle Wallis) plays a kindly bookstore owner with little to do in "Annabelle." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Alfre Woodard (with Annabelle Wallis) plays a kindly bookstore owner with little to do in "Annabelle."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

What follows is stupid but often immaculately made. Director John R. Leonetti photographed “The Conjuring,” and he brings the same prowling, creeping camerawork to bear on an even less credible spook tale — one involving not only ghosts but demons, plus suddenly closed doors, boo effects, loud noises and crayon-writing on ceilings. It’s a seriously clogged movie but at its heart it’s elegantly simple, and tightly focused on real anguish. It vies to be a Polanski-esque study of isolation and madness. Wallis’ SAHM is Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion” crossed with Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”: a haunted beauty whose anxieties manifest themselves in the form of ghosts and ghouls.

But it goes too far. Ghost movies need tight rules, but “Annabelle” keeps introducing several elements, not all of them necessary. There’s scary female ghosts with long black hair out of J-Horror, plus poltergeists, plus a scary black ram demon god thing, plus writing on walls and ceilings in crayon — and that’s in addition to a creepy doll, who mostly just sits there as Leonetti’s camera intensely zooms in on her, as if waiting for her to move. As with a lot of these, the ghosts are dreadful at communicating what exactly they want, and it’s to "Annabelle"'s credit that a good amount of the time it's so well directed that it doesn’t matter what’s actually going on. Leonetti overuses the effect of having innocent person in the foreground with something freaky out-of-focus in the background. But sometimes it pays off better than you’d ever hope, as in an early bit that hangs in Mia’s bedroom as the neighbors across the street are woken up by sounds and then suddenly greeted with knives.

Such barnstormers aren’t infrequent, but they’re at the service of a script that becomes more ambitious than it can handle. “Annabelle” itself keeps losing us and winning us back, over and over again — distracting us from the inanity of the story, like any good horror film, then killing the vibe by going too far or turning sloppy. By its incoherent climax it’s clear which side it’s chosen, but often times this frustrating ghost tale is not only scary but moving.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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