Annabelle ★★½

Annabelle, sister movie to last year's horror hit The Conjuring, sustains tension for about an hour, then falls apart.

It begins with a dopey, pregnant couple chatting with neighbours on a tidy street in 1970 suburbia. References to the turbulent social atmosphere are inserted like ornaments on a grisly Christmas tree. John and Mia are the kind of artificial couple only Hollywood can produce. The attempt to make him vein and selfish and her slightly repressed - a family of the time - is so lazily scripted we enjoy it sneeringly and don't take it to heart.

One night Mia and John are caught up in a horrifying act of violence. It's a jarring, effective sequence, and it's fun watching the Brady Bunch meet Charles Manson. It's so striking as satire that one hopes the movie will keep moving in this direction. Instead it opts for outdated genre conventions and invents a phoney character halfway through to sell us a fraudulent ending.

Two subsequent scenes are frightening. For most of its length the characters do not associate the doll with the spectral activity, and the movie works quite well for the first half. Then it introduces the absurd character, Evelyn. She's a 'damaged', over-friendly black lady who seems to have been waiting for boring Mia and John to show up her entire life. She also happens to be well versed in the specifics of their particular demonic possession. We're told implicitly that this demon needs an innocent soul, it must be 'offered' and so on until we all feel sufficiently patronised.

The film ends with a sacrifice that's funny because it's so mean-spirted toward the Evelyn character, suggesting the grief-stricken are better off dead, and it faintly recalls a time in cinema when black people were more regularly used as throwaway characters who met violent ends. But this movie isn't an insult to African-Americans; it's an insult to screenwriters who don't cheat.

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