It isn’t hard to fathom how The Conjuring was able to scare up so much business last summer. James Wan’s haunted-house throwback boasts a wealth of immaculate 1970s period detail, terrifically terrified performances, a series of expertly staged jump scares, and, finally, a creepy-as-fuck antique doll, popping in for a couple of primo, supplementary jolts. Only the last of those selling points, the dead-eyed doll, applies to Annabelle, which provides its titular possessed plaything with a feature-length origin story. Billed as a spin-off of The Conjuring, the film operates more like a shoddy brand extension; it cost five times less than its predecessor, and the slashed budget shows—both in the economy casting and in the over-lit, sometimes hideous digital imagery. But as a blunt object, a machine built to put nerves on edge and fingers over eyes, Annabelle is still crudely (and cruelly) effective. Fear comes cheap.
While The Conjuring took a perverse pride in informing viewers of its supposed veracity, this prequel doesn’t advertise the fact-based angle quite as loudly—presumably because it’s fabricating a backstory to one of the previous film’s anecdotes. Commencing with a couple lines of text on the history of dolls (kids and the occult like them) and its four or five best-looking images (all excerpted from The Conjuring, naturally), Annabelle rewinds to late-1960s Santa Monica. Here, a blandly handsome medical student (Ward Horton) surprises his pregnant wife (Annabelle Wallis, whose qualifications don’t extend much past her apropos name) with a rare addition to her bizarre doll collection. Annabelle, with her grayish complexion and menacing plastic peepers, is pretty spooky to begin with. (Who would make such a ghastly doll?) So naturally it becomes an instrument of pure evil after being bled on by a Satanic cult member, one of the Manson Family types who breaks into the happy family’s home.
None of what happens afterward qualifies as remotely original. Annabelle plunders relentlessly from other movies, and only occasionally in ways that suggest a self-awareness about its plagiarism. Beyond the usual paranormal pranks and peekaboo apparitions—some of them lifted directly from Wan, who produced—the film features two intervening professionals, one a stock holy man (Tony Amendola, who looks like George Carlin done up like Father Merrin), the other a superstitious bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard, the only cast member capable of selling her goofy lines). Given that the movie concerns a pregnant housewife alone for hours in a single space, and who is later seen pushing around a familiar-looking baby carriage, the choice to name Wallis’ fragile character Mia scans as an overt nod. But Annabelle is no Rosemary’s Baby; the film flirts with taking parental anxiety seriously, but every dramatic scene is undercut by stilted dialogue, oppressive music, and actors who often look like kids playing 1960s dress-up.
None of that much matters, however, when Annabelle is slipping into funhouse mode. A shameless cash grab, the movie is absolutely mercenary in its approach to eliciting screams; there’s an almost admirable mean-spiritedness to its tactics, which prey on elemental fears about family security. One moment, for example, puts Mia behind a locked door as heavy books drop off a shelf, landing within striking distance of a defenseless, oblivious infant. And while he hasn’t much grace with his actors, nor much of the formal control Wan has demonstrated lately, director John R. Leonetti (who shot The Conjuring) shows some skill in manufacturing suspense: A scene involving a bag of popping popcorn and a running sewing machine ratchets up the tension, while a stubbornly malfunctioning elevator proves nerve-wracking in all the right ways. Sometimes even a cruddy horror movie, seen with a properly reactive crowd, can get the job done.