A child’s crayon rolls across a floor. Curtains fly back from a window you thought was closed. A seamstress distracted by the television pays less and less attention to her late-model sewing machine as the camera zooms closer and closer to that naked needle whirring at her fingertips.
And the most alarming looking child’s doll this side of "Chucky" stares, with dead eyes, out of the corner of the frame as a puzzled, haunted young mother steps through a door in the background.
Sometimes, the best effects are the cheapest.
"Annabelle" is another tale of a doll possessed, a horror movie of such hoary conventions that we meet the "knowing priest" (Tony Amendola) in the first scene and we’re introduced to the helpful, occult-curious bookstore owner (Alfre Woodard) before the first act is through.
There’s nothing surprising about this late ’60s tale, including its connection to the modern ghost stories told in "The Amityville Horror" and "The Conjuring." But what it lacks in originality it makes up with in hair-raising execution. You will scream like a teenage girl.
Mia (Annabelle Wallis of TV’s "The Tudors") and John (Ward Horton) may be the blandest Catholics late-’60s California has to offer. She’s a pregnant housewife, waiting for their first baby. He’s a young doctor and man of science.
A Manson family-like slaughter hits the couple living next door and spills into their lives.
The murderous cultist Annabelle got her hands on one of Mia’s antique dolls before she died. And that’s when stranger things than a Satanic murder cult attack start to happen.
Father Perez (Amendola) has a theory that feeds Mia’s growing suspicions about a doll so alarmingly grotesque it could exist only in a horror movie.
"Evil is constant. You cannot destroy what was never created."
And Evelyn (Woodard), an earthy widow who lost her child years before, is laughably matter-of-fact about the vintage books she sells.
"I think my family’s being haunted by a ghost."
Wallis, thanks to good luck, or bad, shares the name of the title character, which is not really the doll but the evil cultist who inhabits it. But she gives a performance so flat, low-heat and soft-voiced that you wonder what the director was telling her. Surely the sound crew was shouting "She needs to SPEAK up." If the meek are going to inherit the Earth, Wallis and Mia will surely be landed gentry.
Her underplaying almost works as a counterpoint to the rising terror of cinematographer-turned-director John R. Leonotti’s vintage effects — baby carriages that roll on their own, noises in the attic, dudes dressed like Satan. We’re lulled to sleep by the acting, jolted when something we’ve seen a million times happens.
"Annabelle" delivers nothing new, but there is a mild surprise in the closing credits, which sharp-eyed "Conjuring" fans already will have picked up on. The performances don’t ensure empathy, though the young-mom nature of the heroine does.
But like "Insidious" and "The Conjuring," the only goal here is to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. And "Annabelle" does, more than once, before that dolly is done.
Review by Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers