Some praised “The Conjuring” (2013), James Wan’s film about the exorcism of a possessed house, for being scary without resorting to gore or special effects. Others, myself included, found the scariest aspect of the film to be its misogyny.
Now comes “Annabelle,” a spinoff directed by John R. Leonetti, the first film’s cinematographer and the man responsible for its ominous look. This time he surpasses “The Conjuring” stylistically with his fluid camera work, dutched angles, abrupt cuts, and spooky if overdone soundtrack. A sequence in a basement is particularly unnerving, until fear turns to hilarity when an elevator door opens and shuts once too often, and a demon resembling Nightcrawler from the X-Men shows up. And though it features a plucky female protagonist, “Annabelle” still possesses the same medieval attitude toward women as “The Conjuring,” reducing the gender to the extremes of self-sacrificing mother and malevolent toy.
The latter is the title doll, which looks like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in a frilly dress. For some reason, the pregnant Mia (Annabelle Wallis, whose performance lends the film credibility) covets this monstrosity. Perhaps it completes her collection of the world’s ugliest dolls, which line the shelves of their nursery like gargoyles. So her husband, John (Ward Horton), tracks it down and gives it to her as a surprise.
Then odd things happen. Deranged strangers break into their house, and Mia ends up in the hospital with the baby’s life on the line.
The baby survives and, associating the doll with the attack (one can’t say more without spoiling), Mia has John toss the doll away. They move to Pasadena, Calif., but the doll turns up again. So they turn to their parish priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), who tells them that the doll harbors a demon who seeks their baby’s soul. Why? Because babies and motherhood are God’s most precious creations.
Plucky Mia’s resourcefulness is all for the sake of others. As one character says, her reason for existing is to protect her family. Even before their child is born, she makes John promise that if it comes to a choice between her and the baby, he should save the baby.
Then again, the story takes place in 1969, when the women’s lib movement was barely underway. So maybe the film’s sexism is period detail. Leonetti also conjures up other creepy features of the era, from the Manson murders, to the Association’s hit song “Cherish,” to the swelling aluminum dome of Jiffy Pop cooking on a stove. He also steals from big hits around that time such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Exorcist” (1973).
Just goes to show that, as the priest says, evil never dies. At least in movies. There it will live on as long as people will pay to see another sequel.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.