Movie Review: “Annabelle”

Starring
Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard
Director
John R. Leonetti

If “Annabelle” had any sense of when to let up on the throttle, it could have been one of the truly great horror movies of the past few decades. Instead, it chooses to mentally exhaust the audience by turning every single thing on screen into a weapon of one form or another, and it ramps up the already unnecessary tension with sound design that turns a sewing machine into a thunderstorm. It makes sense, in a way: they’re trying to make the audience as paranoid as the protagonist, but the one thing that “The Conjuring,” the film in which evil doll Annabelle made her feature debut, did so well was balance the light with the dark. “Annabelle” is nothing but darkness, and a lot of that darkness is been-there-done-that darkness. Indeed, the story line is largely borrowed from “Rosemary’s Baby,” with nods to “The Omen,” “Witchboard,” and even “Poltergeist.” Those are good to great sources, but Annabelle deserved a story of her own, not one stitched together from the carcasses of others.

Set in California one year before the opening scene of “The Conjuring,” Mia (Annabelle Wallis. Yes, the lead actress in this movie is named Annabelle, God love her) and her husband/doctor-in-training John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. Soon after we meet John and Mia, their next door neighbors the Higgins are murdered by their daughter Annabelle, now a member of a satanic cult. Annabelle and her accomplice friend try to kill John and Mia as well, but are not successful. Annabelle kills herself in their nursery, holding one of Mia’s porcelain dolls. Annabelle’s blood spills into the eye socket of the doll. The doll, naturally, is now a conduit to evil.

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Movie Review: “The Conjuring”

Starring
Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, John Brotherton
Director
James Wan

The strange thing about horror movies of the last 10 years is that they’ve rarely been scary. They’ve been grotesque – take, please, “Evil Dead” from earlier this year – but few of them have been legitimately frightening. “The Conjuring,” on the other hand, understands that violence is not horror, and delivers a truly disturbing viewing experience. It may use a little Hollywood pixie dust to make it to the finish line, but the pre-Hollywood psychodrama is positively chilling, and the use of old-school techniques only adds to the creep factor.

It’s the fall of 1971, and Roger and Carolyn Petton (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters, are moving into an old farm house in Rhode Island. From the very beginning, the place seems a little off (the dog won’t go in the house, the basement is boarded up), but the family puts up with all of the seemingly unrelated annoyances (cold, the occasional foul stench, youngest daughter April’s new imaginary friend) and attributes it to, well, something rational, something explainable. It is not long, though, before the “house” ramps up the offensive, and an exasperated Carolyn asks local paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to come to the house and evaluate their problem. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, gets bad vibes from the very beginning, and after doing a little research on the former homeowners, she is fearful for the lives of the entire Perron family, Carolyn in particular.

Screenwriting twins Chad and Carey Hayes wrote the script of their lives here – though to be fair, one look at their IMDb profile and you’ll see that that is a backhanded compliment – by framing the ‘A’ story (the Perrons) and the ‘B’ story (the Warrens) side by side until such time that the families can come together organically. It’s a shrewd move, because it gives the audience the occasional, much-needed break from the terror that the Perrons are suffering, while slowly allowing the audience to get to know the Warrens and the, um, ghosts of their past that they bring with them to this case. That, plus Wan’s refusal to resort to the cheap ‘boo’ scare, gets the audience emotionally invested early, and never lets them go.

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