2014's Annabelle, a prequel to the excellent chiller The Conjuring (2013), was a much better film than I expected going in. I hadn't necessarily avoided taking a look at it, but I also didn't seek it out after I had read so many poor critical reviews of the film. Just as an aside, I do think that film-review aggregation has had a net negative effect on my film viewing habits. I'm at a place now where I don't really do any advance critical research on a film if it's one that I really want to see. This is just another effect of the Internet. When we used to get a review or two in The Oregonian (by the wonderful Shawn Levy, still my favorite film critic) entertainment section, I enjoyed gleaning a few thoughts on a film prior to heading to the theaters. But seeing triple digits of reviews all grouped together and then viewing that damn meta-critical score is ultimately counter-productive to my viewing habits.
I give this film a B+ mark, and I liked it for a variety of reasons. The casting was strong. Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton have great chemistry together, and their turns as young parents in 1964 California were believable and compelling. Wallis shows a lot of strength and vulnerability in her performance, and I liked that Horton put so much faith in her reports of what was happening in both of their homes. His trust is believable here. I'd like to think, skeptic that I am, that I could implicitly trust Jeanne if she were being haunted by a demon from Hell!
Speaking of that, the occult aspects of the storyline deftly fit the doll's origin story. There was (and still is, truth be told) some weird stuff going on with cults back in that era, and the film's first act is both terrifying and convincing exposition for this particular story.
The set design was awesome. Suburban California, complete with unlocked front doors, wide, inviting porches, and all of those Cadillac cruisers, was nicely rendered. The special effects were strong, and there are a few of genuinely scary sequences in the film. Mia's troubles in the sub-basement are hard to watch without squirming, and that scene in which the child runs at the door is absolutely chilling.
The film, like The Conjuring before it, has a real sense of its place in the pantheon of this type of horror story. It's got so much of Rosemary's Baby in it that I can't think the name "Mia" is anything other than allusion. Wallis's believable descent into paranoia mirrors Farrow's in that film, and in both stories it's a heart-breaking thing to watch.
I liked this movie a lot. It's a simple story of demonic possession that does a great job of filling in some gaps in what has become the best horror franchise going. Definitely worth the time to look at, and a truly scary movie in a sea of marginal films...