‘Annabelle’: Horror prequel conjures cheaper scares

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By Bill Goodykoontz/Gannett News Service

It’s typically a sign of trouble when the review of one movie begins with talking about another, usually for comparison’s sake.

So let’s talk about “Annabelle” — but first, we should bring up “The Conjuring,” which is much better.

Where “The Conjuring,” released last year and directed by James Wan, was delightfully patient in doling out its scares, its prequel, “Annabelle,” wastes no time hitting you over the head with them.

That doesn’t mean the film isn’t scary. It is, in places. It just means that it isn’t as satisfying, with lazy storytelling and gotcha! scares, instead of the nice, slow burn “The Conjuring” employed.

Annabelle is a hideous doll that makes an appearance in “The Conjuring.” In this film, the nurses whose apartment the doll was terrorizing are back, and they are telling their story, presumably to paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. (Since Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who played the Warrens in the first film, don’t return for this one, we don’t see the faces).

This kicks off the story of how Annabelle came to be possessed. Director John L. Leonetti takes us back to the early 1960s, where we meet medical-school student John (Ward Horton) and his wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis), a young couple expecting a baby. John surprises Mia with the doll she’s been looking for to complete her collection and, you guessed it, it’s Annabelle.

The doll is just as horrible looking before it gets all beat up, evoking nervous bits of laughter in the audience. Why anyone would want such a thing in their home is anyone’s guess, but Mia is delighted.

Earlier, while watching the news, Mia sees a report of the Manson family murders. That night — that night — members of a satanic cult break in next door and kill the neighbors, then try to kill John and Mia. The male attacker is killed by police, and the woman slits her own throat while holding Annabelle.

That can’t be good.

Indeed it is not. Soon weird and dangerous things start happening (and we are reminded of the dangers of Jiffy Pop-type popcorn). Eventually Mia gives birth to a daughter and the couple moves to a new town, where John will complete his residency.

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But whatever evil was plaguing them in their old house can’t be outrun so easily. Things go from bad to worse. John suggests going to a priest (Tony Amendola) for help; Mia confides in Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), who owns a bookstore down the street with a surprisingly rich occult section.

Screenwriter Gary Dauberman throws in elements of a ghost story here, a demon there, just whatever might be scary. And some of it is, but all in that cheap, quick-cutting way that makes you jump and, yes, sometimes scream. But the scares don’t stay with you. They’re the horror-movie equivalent of junk food.

[s3r star=1.5/4]

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by John Leonetti and written by Gary Dauberman. Running time: 99 minutes. Rated R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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