Unfortunately, Annabelle can't sustain much tension before fizzling out into a boringly repetitive exercise in rehashed scare tactics. The Conjuring this is not.
In Annabelle we learn the horrific origin of that creepy demon-possessed doll that Ed and Lorraine Warren battled in The Conjuring. As it turns out, the doll was once a collectible owned by Jon and Mia Form (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), a young married couple expecting their first child. One night, Jon and Mia find themselves in the midst of a home invasion/murder by a couple of satanic cult members - an assault they barely escape intact.
After that trauma, Jon and Mia's home begins to be plagued by a series of increasingly malevolent supernatural events. Even when they move and their newborn daughter has blessed their new home, they find themselves the targets of some unseen tormentor - one who is somehow connected to that prized doll in Mia's treasured collection.
Director John R. Leonetti (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Butterfly Effect 2) and writer Gary Dauberman (Swamp Devil) are delegated the reigns of this cash-in prequel/spinoff of James Wan's horror movie hit the Conjuring. The combined resume practically speaks for itself - but in all fairness, Leonetti proves to have a few fun (read: freaky) tricks up his sleeve, and Dauberman's formulaic haunting/possession story is suitable enough - at least at the start. Unfortunately, Annabelle can't sustain much tension before fizzling out into a boringly repetitive exercise in rehashed scare tactics. The Conjuring this is not.
Leonetti does his best to create the type of film that would be a fitting companion piece to The Conjuring. This includes using stripped-down throwback horror tactics and sequencing within a close-quarters setting (a la James Wan), and this imitation of style and form proves to be both the movie's strongest advantage, and its most restrictive limitation.
While The Conjuring knew how to pace itself - proper character and world buildups to several big scare sequences - Annabelle plays like a collection of disjointed and episodic scare sequences. At first, those episodic scares are fitting and tense - but after running hot in the beginning, somewhere around the midpoint the good ideas all burn up (with one or two exceptions) and we're left with a lot of repetitive, half-cooked and clichéd scares (if you've seen Paranormal Activity, you've seen this). As the film begins to exhibit less confidence and clarity, the 'scare episodes' become less coherent and even silly in execution. One particular sequence (involving a foreboding basement) tries to go for something surreal and terrifying, but only ends up looking like a bad (slightly baffling) concept - one that was shot on someone's grainy digital camcorder for use in a student film.
That unevenness continues through to the film's conclusion; by the third act, Gary Dauberman's script has become a loose series of scenes with very thin connective tissue holding them together. The ending of the film also plays in a way that will be unsatisfying for most - even offensive to some. There is also very little that's fun or clever about this story as a prequel, other than cheap on-the-nose Easter eggs (mentions of characters (The Warrens), or obvious visual or musical call backs). The best prequels expand or change our perception of the story we thought we knew; Annabelle just takes a longer time to run through a story we already knew.
The principal two actors are not bad - if unremarkable. Ward Horton (One Life to Live) and Annabelle Wallis (Pan Am) have good, playful chemistry as the Forms - but the script doesn't quite know what to do with either them. We get a lot of half measures and reversals about who these people are as characters, and it therefore makes it hard to read or engage with them during their ordeals. Meanwhile, veteran actors like Alfre Woodard and Tony Amendola are wasted in silly, flat roles (Woodard in particular gets no good service for her great efforts).
In the end, Annabelle tries to get by on the creepy look of an iconic doll and a lot of recycled Conjuring scare tactics but only proves that cash-grab spinoffs are as cheap and hollow as expected. Kind of like that creepy doll. (Good thing there's two more of these spinoffs planned...)
Annabelle is now playing in theaters. It is 98 minutes long and is Rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror.