After the breakout success of last year's low-budget horror movie "The Conjuring," it was no surprise when Warner Bros. and New Line quickly summoned a follow-up in the form of "Annabelle," a prequel about the creepy demonic doll introduced in the first film.
But although "Annabelle" has a good shot at scaring off David Fincher's "Gone Girl" to top the box office this weekend, reviews have not been kind to the fright flick, which is directed by "Conjuring" cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Just about every critic agrees that "Annabelle" is inferior to its forerunner.
In a measured review for The Times, Robert Abele said that "'Annabelle' works enough devil figurine juju to make for a modestly hair-raising prequel to the more satisfying scares of its predecessor." Leonetti "loves the spooky stuff but isn't great with actors," and ultimately his new film "lacks the exhilarating pull of 'The Conjuring,' but as a side dish of demon-doll supernatural, it suffices."
Also giving faint praise was the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, who wrote, "As prequels go, it's not bad, though a couple of things keeping it from amounting to more are worth discussing, briefly, before we all get back to our lives." One issue, he said, is that the movie "looks like cheap digital crud"; another is that it suffers from "premise fatigue, leading to low-level audience exasperation."
Nonetheless, Phillips said, "I've seen worse," adding that "'Annabelle' suggests a director of promise" in Leonetti.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub said the movie "is filled with good and bad." He continued: "The production schedule was rushed, and it shows. The script highlights an annoying lack of self-preservation on behalf of the protagonists. But the movie tries to be more than just a creepy doll freakout, and delivers the requisite scares."
Less favorably, USA Today's Claudia Puig wrote, "A couple of jolts don't make for much of a supernatural thriller, and 'Annabelle' has only fleeting jump-in-your-seat moments. ... Several plot threads go nowhere. And slowly."
She added, "The story is a mishmash of demonic possession, Satanic killings, machines suddenly switching on and off and vacantly-staring figurines. It's more familiar than frightening. And the human actors are no more compelling than the poker-faced dolls." (The cast includes Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton and Alfre Woodard.)
Entertainment Weekly's Kyle Anderson went further, declaring "Annabelle" a "deeply insulting prequel." He continued: "The gears grind sluggishly, with the same series of gags and red herrings unfolding until the ridiculous conclusion." The result is "a poorly conceived jumble of half-baked pretension executed entirely without joy for the benefit of the easily bamboozled. For a superior experience, go buy a disturbing-looking doll that says ''Don't go see Annabelle'' when you pull its string."
And the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan found "Annabelle" to be a "disappointingly derivative" film that "borrows a little too liberally from the dog-eared demon-doll cookbook, serving up a platter of half-baked cliches ... all spiced up with lazy jump scares of the sort that have been used a hundred times before."
The movie "has its unnerving moments," O'Sullivan said, "but they're outweighed by the sheer stupidity and predictability of the story."